England Plays It By The Book

Great Britain

British Library, Roly Keating

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?

6 comments on “England Plays It By The Book”

  1. Ian Smith says:

    As the Guardian has just pointed out in an editorial, it’s barely a ‘British’ book-list either — apart from a couple of poets (e.g. Seamus Heaney) and Robert Louis Stevenson, whose ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ makes the grade, all the writers on board are English ones. (Although ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ is set in London, it’s in many ways one of Stevenson’s most Scottish works, drawing on the real-life Edinburgh character Deacon Brodie and on the earlier book James Hogg’s ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’ for inspiration. But I doubt if it’ll be taught in England with any reference made to its Scottish influences.)

    I entirely agree with what you’ve posted. In fact, going through school in Northern Ireland and Scotland in the 1970s and 1980s, it was the American books that usually made the biggest impact on me — ones by Jack London, John Steinbeck, Arthur Miller, etc.

    Incidentally, where I lived in Northern Ireland, the local Free Presbyterian parents (followers of the Reverend Ian Paisley to a man and woman) eventually withdrew their children from the mainstream schools in disgust at what they were being taught there, and instead set up their own school where they had full control of the syllabus. They cited the presence of J.D. Salinger’s ‘A Catcher in the Rye’ in the mainstream literature syllabus as one of their main reasons for doing this! I can’t help feeling there’s a little bit of those Free Presbyterians in what Michael Gove is trying to achieve here.

  2. John Griffin says:

    Trollope. Eeeuch!

    Gove is a reactionary, arrogant knobhead; he managed to offend a whole nation (Wales); he now further foists his reactionary faux-elite prescriptions, and it’s not just in English Lit. The Social Sciences have suffered a considerable assault, not a reasoned one (which was needed) but one driven by the ignoramuses in the Russell Group of universities. You only have to go to a meeting with some of these people to realise how shockingly out of touch with the real world and with teaching they are.

  3. Bob Low says:

    I hope the short stories of Ray Bradbury survive the cull.

  4. pheeny says:

    Sorry John, I enjoy Trollope – certainly more than Dickens, but feel that neither are particularly suitable for GCSE – neither is The Sign of Four and I say this as an ardent Homes fan.
    It seems to me that this latest from Gove is yet another step backwards in education.

  5. Debra Matheney says:

    I studied English literature and thought the whole point was to study works not readily accessible in order to learn about the experience of others, to develop an appreciation for and be inspired by these works.I became a mental health professional and often think I developed more empathy from reading literature than from psychology and its bent for diagnosis. I hate to see curriculum “dumbed down” to pick works which are teachable rather than stretching young minds.
    As an American, I prefer British writers precisely because the cultural background and history is different to mine. I recall sitting in class at the University of Dundee and being asked to explain Faulkner’s The Bear to my peers as the alleged resident expert, when I had likely read less American literature than they had. Hate to see To Kill a Mockingbird lost. How can Scout’s youthful voice not be accessible and a debate about prejudice not be invited by reading it?

  6. snowy says:

    To quote from Sir Humphrey Appleby: “Politicians like to panic. They need activity; it’s their substitute for achievement!”

    MickyG is a particularly odious example of the type, a former creature of Murdoch, a quick wiki will reveal his less than spotless past and this particular ‘hobby horse’ of his has been kicking about for years.

    Though I would have put ‘Animal Farm’ ahead of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ given the intended audience*, it is short, simple and even though it was written at and about a certain time. It’s subject of the inherent corruptability of governments is still relevant, [and will doubtless long remain so, It could even be updated, currently one need just replace all references to ‘Pigs’ with ‘Etonians’ and after that the rest writes itself.]

    [A lot of classic American books are considered too problematic to teach; as they contain multiple references to Wing Commander Guy Gibson’s dog.]

    [*Just to explain a part of the English edcuation system for anybody not au-fait, GCSEs are studied betwist the ages of 14 and 16.]

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