For someone who began his career as a journalist rather than as a politician, our Education Secretary Michael Gove can be astonishingly cavalier as to how conventional and social media will interpret his soundbites and statements. As half term started across the nation, columnists not lamenting the state of Europe and the nation as election results rolled in focused on the reforms to GCSE English Literature.
GCSEs and A Levels are changing. From September 2015, pupils across the nation (the current year 8s) will work towards GCSE qualifications that do not have tiers and are graded by numbers rather than letters, with 9 being the top result and 1 the lowest. English Literature, alongside other “core” subjects, has particularly been scrutinised by the government. Key Stage 4 Pupils must study at least one play by Shakespeare, a nineteenth century novel, poetry from the Romantic period and a work of fiction or drama that has originated in the British Isles since 1914. GCSE English Literature will no longer have a coursework option.
The reforms to A Level Literature are less clear at present, other than that, as with other A Levels, the qualification will be linear. Coursework will be capped at 20% of the overall qualification.
The level of Michael Gove’s popularity with the educational community is abysmal. Social media abounds with hashtags and pages calling for his resignation. Two of the largest teaching unions have passed a vote of no confidence in him. His policies are routinely mocked and derided.
Consequently, on occasion ,those commenting can lose their heads. I am not a Gove acolyte and have never voted for his party, but much of what is appearing about him in the mainstream press is erroneous and much of what is being posted online – by professional adults who should know better – is vitriol.
On 11th May, Eleanor Mills, a journalist at The Sunday Times whose columns I usually enjoy, launched an attack on “the new English A Level.” Amid rumours that “the” new syllabus would include texts by Russell Brand and Dizzie Rascal, she accused the government of “dumbing down” and lamented the passing of the study of traditional texts, such as those written by Shakespeare and Dickens. Her column (and others in rival newspapers) could not have been more wide of the mark: Michael Gove’s policies are decidedly traditionalist. The qualification she was referring to was not English Literature, but English Language – an entirely different A Level.
Having been accused of not being elitist enough, in an educational sense at least, the government was then attacked over the choice of texts for the new GCSE English Literature. One of the examination boards, OCR, pointed out to journalists that Michael Gove had expressed disappointment that 90% of British teenagers studied Of Mice and Men at GCSE and that this novella, as well as another “GCSE classic” To Kill a Mockingbird, was to be removed from the list of set texts. The requirement is for a post-1914 text to be studied – but it must originate in Britain.
Teachers, academics and teenagers reacted badly. On one end of the scale, Professor John Sutherland wrote in The Guardian about the “Ten American Writers Every Teen Should Read” (and very good they are too). At the other, the hashtag “Mockingbird” trended on Twitter and thousands of passionate - but not always accurate - comments were made.
The Education Secretary then published a riposte. Describing the idea that he has tried to ban American novels as a “myth”, he attached the “culture warriors on Twitter” and pointed out that teachers were still free to teach non-British fiction from the nineteenth century.
My own view is that any changes the government makes are increasingly irrelevant given that 55% of state secondary schools are now academies and are not obliged to follow the national curriculum. The advent of free schools only adds to this picture. 7% of teenagers nationally are educated in independent (fee-paying) schools such as our own.
Ironically, a number of educationally self-directing schools already teach IGCSE English Literature rather than GCSE. Through his decision to abolish speaking and listening marks mid-way through a component – a decision of Michael Gove’s I am absolutely hostile towards as it is a breach of faith with children – maintained sector schools have joined the exodus to International GCSEs. These are untouched by government interference – for now. My own year 11 class has just taken an examination in an Indian novel, Fasting, Feasting – a different angle on the world and wonderful preparation for the IB for those pursuing that route, but not a novel that would merit a place on Gove’s new specifications.
The issue of text choice is always a political one. I have something in common with the Secretary of State for Education: our favourite novel is Middlemarch, by George Eliot. I too would love to see teenagers reading it. However, liking a book and teaching it are two different things.
Michael Gove argues that to “deprive” teenagers who are, for example, in a lower ability class in an inner-city comprehensive school of the likes of Shakespeare and Dickens is “elitist” and removes opportunity. I admit that I’m unlikely to teach Of Mice and Men to a PGS Key Stage Four class – in fact, I’ve taught it to year 8 and it is now a PGS year 9 text- but, with the right class in the right school, I would choose it over Austen. Does that make me elitist or a failure? Possibly: but if so, I’m in good company across the profession. Gove’s critics have responded hysterically to the new specifications but lack of trust in the professional judgement of teachers is at the source of their anger.
Ultimately, I think that every English teacher in the country should be able to choose the texts from the syllabus that are most apt for their group of students. A lot of nonsense is written about education, in the media in particular. When in doubt, I recall the Buddhist concept of upaya-kaushalya (“skill in means” – adapting methods to fit the audience). Teachers are passionate about canonical authors such as Shakespeare, Dickens, Eliot and Austen. But when leading some groups of teenagers to literary enlightenment, it can be expedient to select texts carefully. For some children, their GCSE novel is the only one they will ever read and the teacher who knows her or his own class is best equipped to choose the book that will resonate with pupils.