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

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.