Suspicion always haunts the guilty mind

Back in the day, at my East End all-boys grammar school we didn’t have any of these namby-pamby American texts. It was a strict diet of Orwell and Dickens with a little bit of Brighton Rock thrown in for good measure. I also vaguely recall Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, but as this was forty years ago in Hackney that all seemed a bit too much like a normal weekend to be interesting, really.


My own study of English Lit didn’t go to well. I got a U grade for my O-Level. I suppose if you take up the whole of a 2 hour paper explaining patiently to the examiner that Dickens is a boring, patriarchal writer of uninspiring and repetitive prose then that was possibly the best I could have expected. I state this for no other reason than to give you a(nother) reason to ignore my opinions on the issue of GCSE English Literature and book lists.

I want to talk about two things. Firstly to look at my own view of books, from my own experience and looking at what i would like my children to read. Secondly to look at the realities of what the revised DfE guidance will lead to.

So, books. I’m not a teacher of English. The closest I usually get to textual analysis these days is looking for which line of code has the missing semi-colon. To me, that’s the purpose of a semi-colon, to end a line of code. These days, when I pick up a book to read for pleasure I want an easy ride. There was a time when I went with the classics for that, but Jude the Obscure cured me. To paraphrase, whilst everybody should at some time in their lives be exposed to second-order differential equations, I wouldn’t expect everyone to necessarily enjoy them, nor to continue to try and solve them as they get older. Notwithstanding my own experience, and I state this without reservation or qualification, of course children should be exposed to the great works of literature that the English language has given to the world. From this they gain not just understanding of the past (and despite my own Dickens issues, I do get it) but because of the wider influence English literature has had they gain a window onto the future.

There is, however, always a discussion about the “list”. Not just what should be on it, but who should get to decide what is on it. In this area I’m fairly old-fashioned. I don’t pretend our political system or our democracy is perfect (see, Orwell), but it is clear to me that democratic processes are important here. It is not good enough to say ‘this is a cultural issue’ and then outsource the decision. That is to suggest that a nations culture and its democracy are not interconnected. There can be arguments over how widely drawn expert advice should be before decisions are taken (and my own views on the relative narrowness of current advice are well known) but in the end we have to trust our democracy to make these decisions.

What would I want on the list? Well, I prefer to address this in terms of what would I like my own children to do. I want my children to read Orwell, not just the 1984s and the Animal Farms, but more importantly the essays. For me, they define English culture. I also want them to read this:

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.

and see not just the beauty of the words but also make the links to the science that inspired the words. I would like them to love Tess as I do. Poetry I can live without (I have second-order differential equations)  but would want my kids to at least have read some of the Iliad. I would go on, but it is, as you can see, a fairly traditional list. And it would continue in that vein. I might even add some Dickens, but probably in a “I had to read it, so should you” manner. And of course Frankenstein, they must read Frankenstein. And so on.

More than anything I would like them to be able to describe why they like something, whatever it is, and what does it mean for, and say about, our culture.

The above list is a good example of why creating such list should not be left to one individual (or even a small group of them).

But all this is a different matter to what should be in an examination, for which I give two reasons. First, for a text to be in an examination it needs to be studied, not just read. There are time constraints that mean the number of texts which can effectively be studied is limited. Secondly, the inclusion in a national exam (where the nature of the content is government mandated) raises the bar, it imbues the text with an importance. These two issues create a tension. To overcome the first you want a finite number of texts, to overcome the latter you want as many texts as possible. And so we get to what the revised DfE guidance (which is an attempt to resolve these tensions) will actually do.

What does the guidance actually say? Here is the key part.

Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 11.17.04

It sets four categories that must be studied. The stated aim of this is to widen the range of texts studied by students, to quote the Secretary of State:

I have not banned anything. Nor has anyone else. All we are doing is asking exam boards to broaden – not narrow – the books young people study for GCSE.

And, strictly speaking, this is true. Nothing here has been banned. There are no words that say “don’t read this, it’s not allowed”.

The final paragraph of the guidance copied above is key to understanding what the effect of the guidance will be, irrespective of the original intention.

…students should read widely within the range (my emphasis) above to prepare them for ‘unseen’ texts in the examination

This says two things to two different groups of people. It tells teachers where the focus of any additional reading should be and, more importantly in my view, it tells the Awarding Bodies that the unseen texts should be from within the range. I’m sure other interpretations are possible, but they would have to be fairly convoluted.

I agree 100% that nowhere does it say that students shouldn’t be encouraged to read other texts that aren’t ‘within the range’.  And I am sure that in many places this will happen. However, the time constraints mentioned above mitigate against this happening in any significant way.

I don’t think that the guidance as stated will lead to any significant broadening of the range of text studied. It will continue to be as narrow as it currently is, just focussed on a different range of writings. I’m not sure if this is a good or bad thing. But it is the truth.

I await the awarding body text lists with bated breath.



3 thoughts on “Suspicion always haunts the guilty mind

  1. Hi Mike. Yes – this ‘within the range’ will definitely limit what is studied in most schools to that range. It surprises me that some twitter folk are quick to damn those who ‘fussed’ when, actually, this is a big change in a very specific direction.

    I’m interested in the democracy aspect – can’t find the space on twitter to engage with it. To me, democracy has to extend beyond the powers of elected representatives. Other institutions form an important part of a democracy too. Good politicians recognise the limits of their power and their mandate and no-one is elected on the basis of the details of their curriculum preferences. It’s not a simple case of experts vs democracy as some have suggested. If we have to have national consensus on the books studied at school, then maybe a body of English Literature experts – perhaps cross-party appointments? – could review the literature component of our curriculum and make recommendations, scrutinised by the Education Select Committee. That would be more democratic – expert people held to account by representatives. But, even more fundamentally, why shouldn’t this be devolved to smaller community units – regional bodies who consult with local people to get some diversity into our cultural transmission. The DFE doing this under the direction of the SoS doesn’t seem very democratic at all in comparison. Power to the Person (elected only by the good people of Surrey Heath).

    1. The democracy issue is (obviously) complex and in my view we currently have problem with that. Ours is supposed to be a representative democracy but we lack any formal means to enable the representatives to receive representations from the people they represent. This is becoming (informally) better with the advent of social media where it is harder for politicians to ignore the voices of those they represent (or at least pretend they don’t exist). The more that happens then the more likely we are to have that more informed and consensual leadership which would facilitate your process.

      I’m not so sure about an panel of English Literature experts as I’m not convinced that they would be the best arbiters of the cultural relevance (and worth) of any text. And I understand that may well be due to my own confusion about the purpose of studying English Lit. For me it is as much about the cultural as it is about the intrinsic ‘standard’ of the literature (which I believe to be far too subjective an issue – that’s the mathematician in me).

      In the end the time constraints are always going to win here. Unless someone can develop an examination where the questions are independent of any content studied. This could be done, but I suspect that the cost of marking and the QA involved would prevent it ever happening.

Comments are closed.