After Gove: Musings on teaching English Literature 5 (and final)

Ok, so the whole bunch of boards have presented their draft offerings for our perusal. I am indebted to @Learningspy, David Didau for his table which puts them neatly into context:

His blog on this subject is, as ever, insightful and I am pleased to find that he seems to share many of my perspectives.

He also offered a rather good Didau list on twitter yesterday:

My prior thoughts can be found here: PLease feel free to browse these and take the time to look at David’s thoughts as well.

So I am left with mixed feelings.

Michael Gove has made it clear that he wishes to see more breadth in the new format GCSE Literature exam. One of the reasons for his much discussed “culling” of the non-British texts is that around 90% of students study a 75 page novella – Of Mice and Men as one of their texts. He wonders if things have not become a little safe, therefore, and hopes to see a wider curriculum by focusing on works from the British Isles.

Paul Dodd of OCR is reported here putting the blame squarely on Gove:
and the teaching profession, ever eager to launch assaults on every education secretary since the flood, have leaped in, suggesting that if OMAM and TKAM are removed, then there is no future for the study of literature.

Gove has repudiated the claim that he “banned” the texts based on his own dislike of a text: but still the accusations rain down on him.

But, I wonder, what are the boards doing here? OK so two texts have been lost. In addition it is now compulsory to study texts from pre-20th century writers. Surely this in as opportunity to really provide breadth and new thinking into the exam?

I have stated in my third blog on the subject that I would like to have seen author lists rather than set texts and explained a little in the that post how this might be assessed, without seeming to present to great an obstacle. You might not agree with my author choices, but the idea is quite exciting. Why should I teach animal farm to a high callibre group of students who might get much more, in terms of literary studies from treading 1984 or The Road to Wigan Pier? This was my 19th Century author list:
Author gender origin

Dickens M UK
Hardy M UK
Bronte Fx3 UK
Austen F UK
Eliot F UK
James M USA
Twain M USA
Chopin F USA

My 20/21 Century list might look like this:
Orwell M political commentary/social comment
Huxley M philosophy/social comment
Waugh E M humour/social comment
Greene M humour/ social comment
de Bernieres M not just Corelli!
Barker F WW 1
Attwood F Dystopian visions
Atkinson F exploration of relationships/crime
Blackman F social comment
Ness M Dystopian visions and social comment
Ishiguro M fun with narrators!
Barnes M all encompassing

A good range of gender and period there, though I am still struggling to represent the 50s and 60s and this bothers me. Some have commented that these would all be too hard. I disagree. Any teacher should be able to locate a text from this list to suit all levels. After 1984 and NLMG are on GCSE lists!

But the boards have offered little that is new in any way. Many texts seem to be on the lists either because they have always been, or because there is little appetite to present teachers with anything “new” in case they leave the board which might result in financial ruin…

Consider the repetition: IN the 20th century fiction block, Lord of the flies, NLMG, Anita and Me and Animal Farm are well trodden paths giving ample opportunity to carry on as if nothing had changed. Likewise, in drama, there are the safe choices of An Inspector Calls and Blood Brothers which presumably allow centres to make little alteration to their teaching and serve to keep touring theatre afloat as scores of eager students are carted off to watch the endless progress of the two plays to “a theatre near you”. I am pleased by the Edexcel offerings, which seem to slightly more imaginative than any of the others, and simply hope that plenty of schools opt for Journey’s End, even if Inspector is the easier option. am not convinced by the inclusion of Curious Incident: a play version of a fine novel. Why are we working with adaptations? There are so many plays to choose from. David and I both list Hare, Stoppard and Ayckbourn in out various blogs, but the list goes on and on, if we only allow it to do so.

It has also been suggested in a few places that to teach a whole 19th century novel for a closed exam is too hard. Really? Leaving aside the fact that my current year 11s have just sat a closed book exam on Much Ado about Nothing, which was a challenge, but an exciting one, this is just silly and suggests a constant need to run for cover rather than to try to deliver something exciting and extraordinary. Bearing in mind that several boards offer A Christmas Carol in this slot, it is silly to suggest that the exercise is “too hard”. I know there are students who will struggle and maybe they should not be taking Literature in the first place. This sounds harsh, but if the Language exam has breadth enough, there is an argument for this. But we are constantly encouraged to provide depth and challenge. We have high ability students who need to challenge of a longer, more complex text, but also who need the affirmation of their skills to be rewarded with a text which cries out ” you could be great” rather than ” this one is quite easy, you’ll be OK”.

In essence, the boards have played safe. It’s slightly win-win since everyone blames Mr Gove anyway! But this is a missed chance. Teachers know their classes and will choose texts which will challenge and be exciting to teach and to uncover. After all, this is an exam designed to embed an understanding of how Literature works, not to give close-ish knowledge of two or three texts. There are students who might wish to take Lit at A level. We need to prepare them for this rather than to focus all our thoughts and producing enough easy texts to allow 100% take up of the exam. No wonder so many view Lit as “hard” at AS and drop it quickly, when the GCSE staging post seems to be so far removed from the Post-16 version. Let teachers have more choice. Either broaden and excite the lists, or move to author lists. Please.