Limiting the English Curriculum in the name of ‘Rigour’

At the end of this school year English students will sit the new GCSEs in Language and Literature. The revised curriculum was hailed by both Michael Gove and David Cameron as ‘rigorous’ and ‘tough’. Gove wanted his kids ‘to have the sort of curriculum that children in other countries have, which are doing better than our own.’ Having recently started teaching the International Baccalaureate, I fear the new GCSE curriculum does just the opposite.

Students will study one Shakespeare play (which AQA has decided to limit to a choice of 6); one 19th Century novel (again, limited by AQA to a choice of 7); one post 1914 text (from a choice of 6 plays and 6 novels); and an anthology of poetry. Oh, and all writers must be British.

The problem is that Gove and Cameron’s grand proclamations implicitly conflate a narrow curriculum of exclusively British writers with academic challenge and literary worth. They have snuck through a politically motivated curriculum under the guise of increasing challenge. Even the word ‘rigour’ is used carelessly suggesting as it does an intellectual and academic scope that is simply not present here.

There are some incredible poems, plays and novels on offer in the new curriculum, but the list is undeniably limited. By excluding so much literature (both by most British authors and all those of other nationalities) we are depriving students of a broad curriculum, ignoring the interdependency and internationalism of literary movements and reducing teachers’ autonomy.

I love teaching Shakespeare, but why not Antony and Cleopatra or Richard II or Timon of Athens? I love 19th century novels but why not Crime and Punishment or Heart of Darkness or Anna Karenina? By including exclusively British writers we lose Angelou, Vonnegut, Miller, Neale-Hurston, Ellison, Goethe, Mann, Marquez, Kesey, Dickinson, Frost Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Tagore, Burroughs, DeLillo, Pynchon, Chekhov, Carver, Bukowski, Salinger, Lee, Capote, Hughes… the list is verging on endless. These writers’ works are no less ‘rigorous’, no less challenging than those in the new curriculum.

Clearly there is a limit to how many texts can be covered in class, but why are we creating such a straitjacket for teachers? Why are we preventing them from teaching the texts they love, the texts their students will love, the texts that they know will challenge and thrill and push young people to think and read and read and read? It may well be that, given the choice, a teacher would go for A Christmas Carol, Romeo and Juliet and An Inspector Calls but this shouldn’t be the only choice.

So why have these limitations been imposed? The first reason seems to be about promoting British values and to make sure every student has a good grounding in British literary culture. The problems here are many. The very concept of British values or British culture is so difficult to pin down that the result is always deeply political. Which authors are more ‘British’ than others? Is Dickens more quintessentially British than Hardy? What about Woolf and Rowling? Is Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners somehow less a part of British culture because he was Trinidadian, even though the novel is so unequivocally of its time and place? Conrad was born in Poland but became a British citizen, does he count? Heaney, born in Northern Ireland, is included in the new curriculum even though he later became an Irish citizen and famously objected to being included in The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry. Other Irish authors such as Wilde and Joyce have also been appropriated on the sly. Ian McEwan, one of the most influential living authors (who also happens to be British) cites Kafka, Bellow, Updike and Roth as key influences, and yet we exclude all four of them from our curriculum.

I am currently teaching Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night, a text by a Romanian (influenced by French existentialists) originally written in Yiddish, published in Argentina then later edited down and translated into French and given its title by Jérôme Lindon (a Frenchman) before later being translated into English and published in New York with the help of a German literary agent. To which national literature does this text belong?

This limited curriculum is a depressingly small-minded approach to the study of literature. Literary knowledge and a passion for reading are second to the imposition of a fictional national identity.

That leaves the ‘rigour’ argument. Clearly there are plenty of non-British texts that offer just as much challenge as those included in this curriculum. Therefore, underlying the rationale for the new ‘tough’ course is a suspicion that teachers have not been providing suitably challenging material.

On the one hand this betrays a lack of faith in the competence and professionalism of English teachers. Difficult texts must be imposed on feckless teachers by directive. On the other hand, there is truth to this. If you are held to account primarily by examination results and if your school, professional competence and even pay is judged according to this measure, you would be sensible to pick a text that your students will find straightforward. This is why Of Mice and Men has been such a staple of English literature classes in recent decades: it’s engaging, full of easily identifiable literary devices, deals with a range of important social issues and it’s short.

The thing is this won’t be solved by the new curriculum. Over the years the most popular Victorian novels in schools will be A Christmas Carol or The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Why? They’re the shortest books on the AQA list. Given the choice between a book that students will be challenged and inspired by and a book that will make it more likely that they hit or exceed their target grade, teachers are under pressure to choose the latter.

So what can be done? We should be unshackling English teachers from curriculum constraints and trusting their professional judgement to choose a variety of texts to challenge and engage their students. The way in which we formally assess students also needs to be changed. Not only should teachers have more freedom over the texts they choose but there should be more room for creative responses from students. And to be clear I’m not suggesting you devalue literary analysis, but instead, that we avoid formulaic exam questions that tend to promote a narrow approach to literary study. I’m talking about creative analysis, interesting links between texts, parallels to contemporary society and an eclectic range of writing.

It seems we’re stuck with this narrow curriculum for the next few years at least. In the meantime, English teachers need to resist the temptation to teach to the exam. We need to strive to teach the books we love and to push our students (and ourselves) to engage with new writers and texts from across the globe.

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