When Michael Gove announced that pupils were to read a 19th-century novel, a whole Shakespeare play, and a 20th-century British text in preparation for the GCSE English exams, as an English teacher I was elated. When I first became a teacher three years ago, I was astonished to learn that most young people — and particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds — only read one book in preparation for their English GCSE. All too often, that book was not even British. Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird are the go-to options for a majority of schools, meaning that a large proportion of young people leave education with little knowledge of the English literary canon.
As adults, we are the trustees of our cultural and literary heritage, and like generations before us, ought to ensure that young people inherit their birthright. We should insist that our pupils have the opportunity to learn how the writers and thinkers of the British Isles have helped to shape modern thought. Despite claims that this is “elitist”, we are in reality levelling the playingfield by ensuring that all children, regardless of socioeconomic background, have access to the best literature.
Another disconcerting consequence of only studying one American novel is equally worthy of note. Not only are young people leaving school knowing very little about British literature, but they often fail to understand that there is more to America than the Great Depression and racial prejudice. In short, the English national curriculum was too narrow, and did not allow teachers to show pupils the beauty and richness of the literature that has influenced millions throughout the ages.
But the conversation took a rather more worrying turn when the exam boards released their proposed alternatives to these texts: such contemporary works as Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, Meera Syal’s Anita and Me, and Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English. I would be happy for any child to read these texts for pleasure. But are they worthy of study? Are they the texts that will teach young people the most profound lessons the canon has to offer?
Unfortunately, this unintended consequence of Gove’s insistence on British texts has arisen out of the exam boards’ failure to understand his rationale. Instead of reading empowering, transcendent literature (albeit not from the English literary canon), our pupils will now be faced with contemporary works that may or may not test their abilities to the full. A failure to recognise the spirit of the new curriculum as a call for greater rigour will result in pupils leaving school with even less knowledge of English literature than they have now.
With the best of intentions, Gove has tried to ensure that every child is exposed to great British texts. Though I’ve never had the opportunity to ask him, I am fairly sure that he would rather children read Of Mice and Men than Pigeon English. We do want young people to read the works of British writers, but we still have to decide which are worthy of study and which are not. The truth is that Lee and Steinbeck simply are more rewarding to study than Kelman and Bennett, and we must not be afraid to say so.
To Gove’s 19th-century texts I would add Oliver Twist and Alice in Wonderland (plus Gulliver’s Travels from the previous century). And from the 20th, I would suggest Animal Farm and 1984, Waiting for Godot, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (perhaps for lower-attaining pupils, although it deals with several mature themes), and Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials.
It seems that Gove has not yet won the battle for rigour in the curriculum, and we have a long way to go before our young people are given access to the education they deserve. However, Gove doesn’t strike me as the type to give up, and so I hope that his message will eventually be listened to, appreciated and acted on with the conviction it deserves.