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 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

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.