Three Years On: Reflections on the New English Literature A Levels

By Atherton, Carol | English Drama Media, October 2011 | Go to article overview
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Three Years On: Reflections on the New English Literature A Levels


Atherton, Carol, English Drama Media


Carol Atherton explores the origins of recent changes to A Level Literature and reflects on what we have learnt in the first three years of the new specifications.

Beyond Curriculum 2000 ...

In December 2005, I was part of a group of people who assembled at the University of Warwick for a conference organised by the now-defunct Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. It was a cold winter, and the wind that blew across the campus was punishingly icy, but the subject of our conference--the future of A Level--gave us a heady sense of purpose. Our task was to discuss what we wanted to see in a reformed version of A Level English Literature. We had already been given some guidelines: four units instead of six, the simplification of the Assessment Objectives, and the retention of synopticity. Apart from this, we had a lot to talk about. How many set texts would the new courses involve? Which authors and periods would students be required to cover? What kind of subject would the new version of A Level represent, and how would the Assessment Objectives reflect this?

One of the most striking aspects of the Warwick conference was how dissatisfied people were with the specifications introduced under Curriculum 2000. There was a clear consensus as to what was wrong with the current version of the subject. Back in 1999, when the Curriculum 2000 specifications were launched, there was a cautious sense of optimism about the future of A Level English Literature. Robert Eaglestone saw the new specifications as representing an important step forward for a subject that had been 'pickled in educational aspic' for far too long, engaging for the first time with theoretical ideas concerning different critical interpretations of texts and the contexts of production and reception (Eaglestone 1999).

Yet this initial promise faded relatively quickly, in a process that has been widely documented. Teachers soon found themselves bogged down in confusing allocations of marks and objectives, forced to teach texts in ways that seemed anything but logical.

Specifications initially lauded for bringing clarity to the discipline of English Literature were soon being criticised for the tortuous ways in which they required particular units to be approached. By 2005, the NATE report Text: Message: The Future of A Level English (NATE 2005) was calling for 'a fundamental review of the current model of English at ', arguing that the subject failed to provide 'an appropriate curriculum for its students'. For the authors of Text: Message, the reforms promised by Curriculum 2000 had failed: English at A Level remained 'largely uninformed by the radical changes that [had] transformed the subject in higher education' (pp 3, 5-6).

So those of us huddled against the cold at Warwick felt an enormous sense of responsibility. We needed to outline the principles that would guide A Level English Literature through its second set of major reforms in less than a decade. In doing this, we were conscious of the problems that our new version of A Level might pose for teachers already adjusting to changes elsewhere in the secondary curriculum. We wanted to lay the foundations for courses that would be challenging and stimulating, producing avid readers with a keen sense of the place of literature in relation to society, culture, history and individual lives.

We were also conscious of our responsibility to those students for whom English Literature might be a third or fourth choice, who might always find the subject a struggle and who might feel marginalised by the rhetoric that often surrounds the study of literature. Finally, we needed to think about the subject of English itself, and how the new A Level would prepare those students who would be going on to read English Literature at degree level.

We were also conscious of our responsibility to those students for whom English Literature might be a third or fourth choice, who might always find the subject a struggle and who might feel marginalised by the rhetoric that often surrounds the study of literature.

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