Between 2005 and 2012, the number of students taking GCSE English literature dropped by 18 per cent. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Gove’s provincial syllabus is not the issue: English literature GCSE is slowly being phased out

Reforms set to take effect from September 2015 will see English literature become an optional subject, reserved for only the brightest students, which will not count to schools’ Ofstead rankings.

 

Contrary to popular opinion, Michael Gove does not intend to ban American literature in British schools. After a weekend of hand-wringing by teachers and students in thrall to Arthur Miller, John Steinbeck and Harper Lee, the Secretary of State for Education declared he was astonished that his tampering with the English GCSE syllabus – “of all things” – had produced such anguish.

“I want pupils to grow up able to empathise with Jane Eyre as well as Lennie, to admire Elizabeth Bennet as much as Scout Finch,” he wrote, referring to new regulations that will require students to study a play by Shakespeare, Romantic poetry, a pre-20th-century English novel, and very little else.

For those who teach, study or take an interest in books, Gove’s provincialism should be of minimal concern. There are deadlier forces at work. GCSE reforms scheduled to take effect in September 2015 will abolish the three qualifications available – English language, English literature and a mixture of the two – in favour of a new, compulsory English language GCSE. Like modern languages, English literature will be optional. Most alarmingly, the course will not be counted in the reformed English Baccalaureate, the new performance indicator used by Ofsted to rank schools.

All of which is to say that English literature is becoming a minority sport. The notion that difficult or challenging books are the preserve of a political elite seems to be trickling down into the school system. Only those judged to be capable – aged 14 – will be able to take part in the revised course. Schools are less likely to encourage students to study English lit, now that it will do nothing to help their position in the league tables. The qualification will focus on written communication skills first and foremost. Other changes are coming, too: students are to be ranked from 1 to 9, rather than graded F-A*; coursework will be abolished; and speaking and listening will no longer be a part of English assessment.

“If you want your pupils’ results to count towards your EBacc performance you should ensure they are taking the correct subjects,” the Department for Education website warns. My italics.

Between 2005 and 2012, the number of students taking GCSE English literature dropped by 18 per cent. This is a shocking change, which has been mirrored at A-level and in university applications. Literature – and the humanities in general – have always had a hard time defending, or even defining, what they do. The subject lacks a single, unified body to lobby on its behalf, an equivalent of the Historical Association. It is riven by factionalism: researchers against teachers, medievalists against modernists. In an
era preoccupied with economic growth at all costs, it needs to become better at articulating its worth. Michael Gove is not banning anything, but he is constricting an almost impossibly large subject.

“The big themes of American history – slavery, racism, the Depression – are familiar to students. They resonate,” says James Anderson, a secondary school English teacher from Rotherham. “It is much more difficult to explain the nuances of upper-class romances. It’s lost on them. It’s boring.”

Of Mice and Men, a text Paul Dodd of the OCR exam board claimed that Gove “particularly dislikes”, has been on the syllabus for more than 30 years. Perhaps we are due a shake-up, in consultation with teachers, according to the needs of students. Nationalism should have no part in it.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.