Michael Gove hasn’t banned anything …

Tom Middlehurst… but he has changed the emphasis of exams; does it really matter?

Tom Middlehurst, Head of Research SSAT writes … 

Hopefully we all now know that the Secretary of State has neither banned the teaching of American texts in schools nor has a deep-rooted hatred of Steinbeck, Lee, Miller and their contemporaries. As the Department has continually stressed since the national curriculum consultation last year, it is entirely up to schools and individual teachers which texts they choose to teach – with the national curriculum setting only the bare minimum.

However, as teachers know all-too-well, content choices at KS4 are necessarily dictated by exam board specifications; they have to be and it would be naïve to suggest otherwise. So, by changing the specified subject content of GCSE English Literature [pdf], the Department has essentially precluded certain texts from being taught at KS4.

The document states that GCSE English Literature courses “must include”:

  • at least one play by Shakespeare
  • at least one 19th century novel, written anywhere
  • a selection of poetry since 1789, including representative Romantic poetry
  • fiction or drama from the British Isles from 1914 onwards
  • an unseen text in the examination

The key words here are “must include”; the Secretary of State’s response to critics is that exam boards are free to design broader courses that offer texts outside of these non-negotiables, and that schools can teach texts not on the exam course.  However, the reality is that this is unlikely happen: few schools would choose an exam board which requires students to study an additional text beyond the government requirements; and only the most self-assured teacher would willingly give precious lesson time to study a whole book not on the exam.

So, no, Gove hasn’t banned anything as such, but he has made it a lot more difficult to include certain texts on the KS4 curriculum. The question is: is this a bad thing?

Potentially, not. It comes down to is what we really mean by the Study of English Literature. David Didau has persuasively argued that a more explicit teaching of the canon of English is desirable: students gain a deeper and broader appreciation of literature when the patterns, allusions and themes are explored over time. Therefore, ensuring that texts include pre-twentieth century novels is something to be welcomed. Furthermore, study of literature produced in the British Isles is no bad thing: it is our heritage and is who we are – we should not be afraid of embracing this.

Realistically schools will not have the opportunity to teach twentieth century American texts at KS4. But if schools believe these texts are of worth, there is nothing to stop them including them on the KS3 curriculum.

But surely, the end goal is to instil all students with a love and appreciation of literature. Students will develop this through exciting and engaging teaching; whether that’s on Of Mice and Men or Animal Farm. Their feelings towards literature will almost certainly come down to their daily, lived experiences in the classroom; not what text is on the exam. As Dylan Wiliam reminds us, pedagogy trumps curriculum every time!

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