Monday, 26 May 2014

Michael Gove removes To Kill a Mockingbird and other classics from the GCSE syllabus.

I read today that Michael Gove has decided to cut such classics as To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men and The Crucible from the GCSE syllabus from next year. According to the exam board OCR the works have been removed because the Department of Education wishes the exams to be more "based on tradition". By this they mean that students will now study at least one Shakespeare play, the Romantic poets, a 19th century novel from anywhere (US, European,British), a selection of post 1850 poetry and a British 20th century novel or drama. According to Paul Dodd, the OCR's head of GCSE and A Level reform another reason was because Michael Gove, who studied English at Oxford, had "a particular dislike of Of Mice and Men".

I am sitting here at my laptop somewhat lost for words ... I understand that change is inevitable and necessary. The education system has to change and move with the times, but the changes being made here seem, at the least, short sighted. To remove such inspiring classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men and replace them with a narrower choice of work just seems ... wrong.

I remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird when I studied for my O Levels and I have re-read it several times. It inspired me. I have always enjoyed reading and devour books at a rate of knots. My degree was, for the most part, English Literature, and we covered a broad range of work - from the 19th century novel to Aphra Behn,from Shakespeare to Children's Literature. By the time I started my degree I had followed a path that led me from Black Beauty to The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, from Treasure Island to The Count of Monte Cristo and from To Kill a Mockingbird to Our Mutual Friend.

I was fortunate that our house was full of books and I had access to them all. For many students their first brush with classic literature is through their GCSE. Therefore GCSE English Literature needs to be inspiring, moving, exciting. It is the gateway to the world of literature for many.

Bethan Marshall, chair of The National Association for the Teaching of English and a Senior Lecturer in English at Kings College, London, has said that the new curriculum is far from inspiring. She, in fact, goes as far as to say that the choice of work will "grind children down". Rather than being forward thinking, imaginative and modern the syllabus ( rumoured to have been designed by Gove himself) is like something "out of the 40's" according to Marshall.

If you are studying a course that "grinds you down" how can you be inspired? And how many will continue on to A Level and Degree English Literature if they are uninspired by their GCSE? Gove wants students to study Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Keats and, of course, I would say that yes these works should be studied, but the GCSE needs to be tailored to suit and to inspire today's 16 year olds. It is a gateway to literature and if they are crushed by a dry diet of heavy duty classics will they want to carry on to A Level?

There needs to be a balance of work that appeals to the students. The new curriculum is heavily biased towards British writers and because of the focus on "tradition" there is little scope for inclusion of more modern work such as those of Harper Lee, Steinbeck or, indeed, Arthur Miller's The Crucible.

The thing that shocks me the most about all of this is the fact that one man, Michael Gove the Education Secretary, can have so much power. His "particular dislike" of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men means that he can arrange for its removal from the syllabus. His desire for "tradition" means that GCSE students are given a syllabus "from the 40's" which will "grind them down". His desire for "tradition" means that there will be no course work, but instead two exams at the end of the two year period.

There is a place for tradition. I love tradition. But there is also a place for understanding that GCSE should inspire students to further study. Literature does not rest solely at the feet of Dickens and Shakespeare. The US classics are equally as important and in many ways are far more accessible to teenagers. When faced with Our Mutual Friend or To Kill a Mockingbird which one is going to inspire a teenager to study and enjoy literature? Of course both are incredible books, but Harper Lee's classic is, in my opinion, the one that will touch a nerve, light the flame of love for literature. And when that flame is lit there will be no stopping a student.

I fear that Gove's obsession with an age gone by, an old fashioned ideal of education where children sit in rows of desks chanting " amo, amas, amat" and learning Shelley by rote, is an obsession that is both dangerous and wrong. It is an obsession that will result in fewer students being inspired by a love of literature and more and more turning away from something they consider dull and dry.

I still cannot help the tears springing to my eyes when I recall excerpts from To Kill a Mockingbird and it planted the seed in me that I should always do the right thing. The right thing is to fight this decision and to fight Michael Gove's narrow minded destruction of our education system.

Since writing this I feel the need to clarify. Michael Gove's new syllabus, in my opinion, narrows the choice of books eligible for study. It seems a shame that there are no fresh voices. The only chance for any literature from overseas is if it is a 19th century novel. Anything more modern has to be British. I don't understand why To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men are to be removed and yet not replaced by books which cover themes which will appeal to teenagers, themes which are immediately relevant in today's world. It will be interesting to see the choice of 20th century work chosen for the syllabus. I am not against change at all and I agree with one commenter that a rotation of work would be a good idea so we don't get bogged down with the same books for 30 years. I think that Gove's syllabus seems to be based very much on works that are pre 20th century, very traditionalist and I wonder if there should not be more scope for the study of more modern work. We shall see.


Anonymous said...

I think there should be more rotation of texts in the syllabus to give freshness. As the mother of an 18 and 20 yr old, far, far too many young people have studied Of Mice and Men over recent years,to the exclusion of so much else! That's narrow too...

sarah at secret housewife said...

I have to say that I agree with you to a certain extent. I think we should be open to change. What I find frustrating is Gove's backwards step. There are so many texts that could be studied and yet he has narrowed the choice without listening to education specialists.His "bull in a china shop" approach is so destructive.
Thanks very much for commenting.

Tracy said...

Not sure why I appeared as anonymous, sorry about that! Mind you it could be worse, it could all go back to relentless DH Lawrence, that's a memory I can do without :) My family and other animals on the other hand I have very, very fond memories of.

nick lambert said...

I agree with your argument up to a point, both books mentioned are fantastic and inspiring, however one was written in 1937 and the other is a 1960 novel set 1936. I find it difficult to believe that examination boards have not been able to find equally great and inspiring novels written and set in times closer to the lives that teenagers live now. Both are truly brilliant books but just as much period pieces as the suggested 19th century novel.

sarah at secret housewife said...

Hi Nick
Yes I agree. I'm not against change at all and I'm not saying that we should keep the same books forever and ever. If anything I think there should be a variety of more modern books in there. Gove seems intent on making students study really old works.The only hope of studying anything post 19th century is his decree that they should study a British 20th century novel or play. This effectively wipes out anything from the US , Europe or elsewhere and I think this is wrong. Surely there have been some decent books written in the last 50 years? And not just in Britain? English lit is not just the works written by British writers.
I think we probably are thinking the same way. I might have to change my post to make my view more clear. x

Inkling said...

I find this post really interesting. A friend of mine who has her masters in library science mentioned this new change and was saddened by it. As I read through your post and the comments already written, it strikes me to be grateful for the classical education model talked about by Dorothy Sayers in her Lost Tools of Learning essay that has been revived and written about by an educator in the USA. There has been a resurgence of classical, literature based programs. Children still chant "amo, amas, amat", but they do it when they are young (age 8 or 9) while chanting and memorizing is still fun and not ponderous. And because the whole curriculum is literature based, they have from Kindergarten to grade 12 to be exposed to beautiful and challenging works by diverse authors. They even get to read an abridged Shakespeare in the elementary grades to prepare them for the Shakespeare in a Week play that the upper school students put on. I remember teaching that book to prepare my students for the play we would see that week, and realizing that I was finally enjoying and understanding the Bard. I only wish I'd had the benefit to be educated that way from the beginning, instead of indirectly through my own teaching jobs.

It's a shame the curriculum has to be so limited and rather ethnocentric in so many schools today. We read a plethora of American authors, with very little exposure to anyone else when I was in school. It wasn't until I was exposed to the classical model that a world of literature was put before me. I felt a bit like Helene Hanff upon finding Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's book in her library and choosing to embark on a whirlwind journey.

Mark Bogod said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sarah at secret housewife said...

Thanks Inkling.Your comment is very interesting. It has made me think that over here we tend, in my eyes, to be teaching so that children can pass exams rather than teaching to give children an in depth knowledge of literature.

Hello Mark. Thanks for commenting.All the articles I had read before writing this post ( BBC News, Guardian, Independent) had said that the new syllabus had to include, as I said in the post,
"at least one Shakespeare play, the Romantic poets, a 19th century novel from anywhere (US, European,British), a selection of post 1850 poetry and a British 20th century novel or drama."
I think that to say Gove has little to do with the syllabus is wrong and if you are right then surely as Education Secretary he should have something to do with it? My problem is that he appears to make sweeping changes without listening to education experts.The current GCSE students completed all their speech and language course work and then were told that actually this would count for nothing and they would have to sit an exam instead.I have never met anyone working in schools who speaks of Gove in glowing terms. If anything he and his policies are derided and teachers are leaving the profession in droves because of the way the system is going.
I am interested to see that you consider me a literate leftie ( much better than being an illiterate leftie!) but actually my politics are not on the left. If anything I lean more towards the Conservative party.
I could have written a post saying that Gove had banned all foreign books, as had been bandied about the internet, but my research showed this to be untrue. I have tried to write an honest post that shows my concern for the fate of our education system.
Thanks for commenting. Its good to get different viewpoints.

sarah at secret housewife said...

Oh ... and I love the way you took the "literate leftie" thing from a tweet by Daniel Hannan! I thought it was your own for a

Tammy Chrzan said...

This is actually very sad, classic books such as these should always be part of the curriculum... It is very surprising that one person has so much power. It seems there should be a board of directors to make such decisions?? And many teachers on that board!
Tammy x