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29 May 2014updated 24 Jun 2021 1:00pm

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.  

By Philip Maughan

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.

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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.

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