You’ve probably seen that there’s been a huge popular backlash against Gove’s plan to remove American classics To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men from the GCSE English Literature specification, in favour of more works of UK origin.
I am very much not an expert on English Literature (my O-level teacher once described me as “not a literary soul”) but I can see that these two works were good choices for the syllabus – they cover important, timeless themes and have characters that are relatively easy to identify with but still have complexity. They are also “accessible” – not the sort of work that immediately feels “hard” due to its vocabulary, very long paragraphs or voluminous nature. Does that mean they are a soft touch? I don’t think so. The accessibility means that less able kids can still engage with the works and demonstrate positive achievement, but the most able will still be able to show their ability too – surely English Literature is very much a subject for “differentiation by outcome”.
Among other things, Gove wants kids to cover Shakespeare, a 19th Century novel and Romantic poetry. My response to this is, I’m afraid, very much determined by memories of my 15 year old self. And that 15 year old self hated Dickens and the Brontes, and similarly loathed Keats and Shelley. It’s not that I hated reading – I absolutely loved it and devoured a wide range of fiction and non-fiction books. But Dickens’ angelic child heroines and comic characters with their contrived speech made me cringe and the Brontes’ work seemed melodramatic. I simply couldn’t relate to the Romantic poets at all – it all seemed too overblown – but loved lots of other poetry from Hopkins to Hughes.
Now I dare say that Gove (and indeed some English teachers) feel that it would have been “good for me” to be forced to appreciate all these works I didn’t like – they’d probably even suggest I’d come to like them. I’d certainly dispute the latter – whilst I like Hardy now, for example, being forced to read his work at school (when I found it simply indigestible) put me off him for years (and I still don’t like Dickens, incidentally!). Would it have been good for me? Well, for me personally, it probably wouldn’t have done much harm, other than making me very fed up in English lessons coming up to O-level. But I was someone who already read voraciously and knew that reading was a great source of pleasure. Had I been a kid less inclined to reading, not surrounded by books at home, I think being given so “traditional” a diet might have put me off for life.
There is, in any case, a wider issue here. The job of the Education Secretary is not to micro-manage syllabuses. Education Secretaries are politicians, not educationalists or experts on any specific subject area. Of course it is appropriate to review syllabuses on occasion to consider whether they are doing what they’re meant to and to amend the content (though not too often, please!) – but the detail should be those with expertise in that subject and experience teaching it, not a politician with neither. In this case it’s made worse by the fact Gove appears to want to impose the syllabus of his 1980s grammar school on the entirety of the school population. But even if we had a sensible and well-informed Education Secretary, it’s still not their role.
I am waiting with bated breath to see if Gove is planning to force us to revert to those old 4-figure log tables in the maths syllabus, since he thinks calculators are the work of the devil…