Monday, 26 May 2014

Calm Down. The Gove Bashing is Slightly Premature: Of Mice, Crucibles and Mockingbirds.

Before we get into this, let's establish some facts.
The Sunday Times have published this:

 

OCR have been slightly disingenuous here, as it's AQA, their competitor exam board, who have had Of Mice And Men, To Kill A Mockingbird and The Crucible as set texts at GCSE English Literature. I don't think OCR has them all as set texts currently. 90% of kids have studied Of Mice And Men maybe because the majority do AQA?

Before we get to my thoughts on this, below is the summary of the DFE (i.e. Gove) requirements that all exam boards are expected to follow in their new specifications (what we now call syllabuses):

GCSE English Language
  • The new English Language GCSE will encourage students to read a greater range of high quality, challenging literature and non-fiction text from a range of genres and types (from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries).
  • Reading and writing will be equally weighted in the new English Language GCSE.
  • The new English Language GCSE will have a greater focus on making sure that students are able to write clearly and accurately, in good Standard English. There will be an increased emphasis on spelling, punctuation and grammar including the use of vocabulary.
  • Tiers will be removed from GCSE English Language. This means that specifications and question papers will have to cover the full range of abilities.
  • Speaking and Listening will be assessed through endorsement (this change is being introduced to exams from summer 2014).  There will be a bigger emphasis on teaching students to become more confident in formal speaking.
GCSE English Literature
  • The new English Literature GCSE will encourage students to read a wide range of classic literature fluently with the assessment of:
    • A 19th century novel
    • A Shakespeare play
    • A selection of poetry since 1789 including representative Romantic poems
    • British fiction or drama from 1914 onwards.
  • Tiers will be removed from GCSE English Literature.  This means that specifications and question papers will have to cover the full range of abilities.
  • There will be increased assessment of unseen texts.
  • The quality of writing in the response to texts will be assessed.
Changes to both new English GCSEs
  • The study of literature will remain a compulsory part of the Key Stage 4 curriculum.
  • There will be new requirements to use more diverse and challenging writing skills, such as narrating and arguing.
  • All English GCSEs will have terminal assessment with no controlled assessment.    
  • a new grading system will be introduced. Students will be awarded a grade from 1 to 9, with 9 being the highest. Students will get a U where performance is below the minimum required to pass the GCSE
The above is all public and was published a few months ago. Teachers are currently waiting (and have been for over a year, after delays and delays and delays) for exam boards to publish their new specifications for GCSE, which will comply with the above rules.

Note that, yes, Gove has announced that he doesn't like 'Of Mice and Men' blah blah blah. I'm not going to bash Gove endlessly here. You can guess what my feelings are about what he does and how he says it. This post is Rumour Control. As ever, whenever any of the media report on education, they are spectacularly poorly informed (especially the BBC) and put the wrong twist on it.

The real 'scandal' is not that 'Of Mice and Men', 'To Kill A Mockingbird' and 'the Crucible' will no longer be set texts, but that Gove wants GCSE students to have a literary diet skewed far too much in the direction of the 18th and 19th century. We now live in the 21st. There's a 100 years of excellent literature that may be overlooked here, but the proof of the pudding will be when the specifications are actually published later this week.

Like a rock band's set list, sometimes you have to rest a classic. Two generations of people have studied and enjoyed 'Of Mice and Men' at school and they will continue to do so. But - and I say this from experience without judgement - a generation of English teachers have come up who have a fairly narrow experience of what has been and can be taught.

Romantic poetry? Great - bring it on. Blake is mental. Coleridge rocks. 19th century novels? Yes! There's a loophole in the current AQA English Literature spec where this can be avoided, so bring it on. Jane Eyre - gothic horror! Frankenstein, Dracula ditto! Dickens - a master of characterisation. Great Expectations - can't go wrong. I'll draw the line at Silas Marner or The Mill On The Floss but I'll give it a go. A good English teacher can make anything accessible and interesting. My Year 10 students loved comparing Hamlet and Henry V for their Eng Lit coursework. It's all in how you do it.

A completely unnecessary plug for mine and Staz Johnson's graphic novel adaptation of Dracula. You can get it from Amazon or direct from www.classicalcomics.com or, y'know, all good bookshops.


There's nothing yet that suggests there won't be non-British authors in the specifications, despite what the Sunday Times have scaremongered. What if we get Animal Farm? Great - as powerful an allegory for government suppression as any. Lord of the Flies? That's already there and may well stay, we don't know yet. What about more recent British classics? The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time? Already on some syllabuses. All is not lost, folks.

What we've actually lost is that 'The Crucible' is great for engaging bright girls, and 'To Kill A Mockingbird' has one of the best realised female narrators in literature. I'm more worried that we're going to lose strong narratives for females (not that girls don't like Lord of the Flies but hopefully you see what I mean).

Atticus Finch (the great Gregory Peck) and Scout, the narrator of 'To Kill A Mockingbird' - not only a moving treatise on bigotry but a powerful portrait of parenting and growing up without a mother.

Besides, kids are at school a long time. GCSE courses start in Year 10. Why not teach 'Of Mice and Men' and 'To Kill A Mockingbird' in Year 9?

After all, they haven't been banned.

Thanks, Mike.

5 comments:

  1. Interesting...now, IIRC, I studied TKAM and Steinbeck ("The Pearl") before the O-
    level (as 'twas) course began. So, as you say, no reason why these still couldn't be worked in. Why the emphasis on the Romantics in particular though? Coleridge rocks (literally...I've recently done a lesson for a middle-aged metal fan on Iron Maiden's Ryme of the Ancient Mariner), and Shelley/Byron are essential for aspiring Lefties (which I'm sure is not Gove's intention)..but 20th century poetry has got to be there...fond memories of grappling with Eliot, Dylan Thomas, and brilliant-but-horrible Philip Larkin.

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  2. Oh, and one more thing..."a good English teacher can make anything accessible and interesting."

    Exactly...John Coltrane could make something as seemingly banal as "My Favourite Things" sound like the scariest, most progressive piece of music in the world...

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  3. Hi Phil! I'm sure 20th century poetry will still be there. At present GCSE students study a range of poetry including people like Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy, Ted Hughes, ee Cummings, Owen Sheers etc etc, so I doubt that we'll lose that. The emphasis on Romantics is one of those things that is purely Gove's personal taste, and I'm sure it will be fairly ill-defined. Will Blake count as a Romantic? Or Browning? They're at the edges. The new syllabuses (well, at least one of them that I know of) are published tomorrow, so I may be eating my words this time on Friday!

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  4. Simon Armitage...went to a reading by him once (at the St Magnus Festival on Orkney, of all places). Seemed like a nice bloke as well.

    You must come to Venice...every self-respecting Romantic did, after all!

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