Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Real Lesson of the English GCSE

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Real Lesson of the English GCSE

Article excerpt

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 count 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. Schools are less likely to encourage students to study Eng 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. …

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