England Plays It By The Book
The new booklist drawn up for the GCSE syllabus is under fire as never before. Journalists and writers across the country have expressed dismay that list of set texts for English GCSE has cut out international authors to concentrate on British books, and by doing so has ‘plumbed new depths of cultural incoherence’.
The AQA, the biggest exam board, revealed that among the American authors dropped are Steinbeck, Twain, Miller, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, TS Eliot and Harper Lee. Books from Australia, New Zealand and Nigeria have also been binned. Other novels which will no longer be examined include A Purple Hibiscus by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Mister Pip by New Zealand author Lloyd Jones and Rabbit-proof Fence by Australian Doris Pilkington.
The argument for the changes is that the newly selected works should be eminently “teachable” in that they must inspire debate, open imaginative doors and stimulate classroom discussion (which you could argue is the criteria for any serious novel). Of course backlists change all the time and there will always be detractors, but the choice from British authors does feel ignorant in places, with books that have had film adaptations preferred.
Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, claims that the Government has not put pressure on exam boards to ban foreign authors from GCSEs, but the omissions are peculiar. Why pick Conan Dole’s weak ‘The Sign of Four’, Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ over ‘1984’ and not bother with VS Naipaul, Michael Ondaatje, Vikram Seth, Phillip Larkin or WH Auden?
Of course reading must be accessible, and perhaps some heavier tomes belong in university courses, but reading through the overall list it appears more simplistic than usual. Checking back through my notebooks I found that at 15 I did Trollope, Orwell and Henry IV Parts 1 and 2.
The debate is set to continue, but it’s easy to imagine why some think the heavy hand of political selection has settled on what children read. I wonder which more recent ‘difficult’ novels will make it onto future lists?