Michael Gove: Brought to book on reading list
- Credit: Archant
Michael Gove has been lambasted for meddling with the English GCSE syllabus, but is it due for an overhaul? We asked teachers to choose their set texts. Which books would you pick?
• Tom Davidson, Head of English, Ellesmere College
Chosen books: Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
It’s been an interesting year to be a Head of English. We returned in September to deal with the fallout of Mr Gove’s diktat that Speaking & Listening should be immediately excised from the English Language GCSE course.
The manifold unfairness of this decision to a cohort of students already embarked on this two-year course is yet to be fully assessed, but there is little doubt that hasty re-scheduling of examination timetables and weighing of the teaching did little to give our students confidence in what many regard as a broken system. Now we have the imperious decision to cast out much- loved texts. Whilst the Booker prize sees fits to include the best of American literature our own Education Secretary seeks to prune it away. A new GCSE course that tests core skills and allows teachers to select texts that best suit the groups they know so well is surely the best way. Let’s dispense with the prescribed text rigmarole and set questions that allow students to respond to the texts they have studied. The International Baccalaureate does this well giving students and teachers almost a free choice in studying quality texts both in translation and in English.
• Lucy Griffith, Head of English and Creative Arts, Badminton School
Chosen books: 1984 by George Orwell, A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller and Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge
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It’s wrong to be too prescriptive. A book that can be perfect for one class can be quite wrong for another. If the teacher is inspired by the book, he or she will probably communicate this to the class. It doesn’t matters if it’s not an “English” text. It is important for students to read 1984 by George Orwell – partly because I feel that his vision is a valuable (if miserable) warning to us all about what life is like when you have no freedom and partly because quite a few students I have taught think that Big Brother is just the name of the TV show. Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge has gone down well with our GCSE students – they loved the moral complexity and tragedy of this play. Many students would enjoy the Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge – their view of nature being sacred and psychologically healing is a message we need now more than ever. Interestingly too they both thought that being left alone to have your own thoughts is the best basis for a sound education. They might have had some interesting suggestions to make to Mr Gove.
• Angela Rodrigues, Deputy Head of Sixth Form and Teacher of English, The Cotswold School, Bourton-on-the-Water
Chosen books: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Long and the Short and the Tall by Willis Hall, The Book Thief by Markus Zusac
The GCSE Literature syllabus has become a well-worn and unimaginative journey through predictable prose, poetry and drama. The DfE’s recommended aims for the new Literature syllabus, however, seemed to hold promise so it is disappointing, then, to read the draft specifications and feel constrained once more. What is lacking is the opportunity to inspire young people to read by being able to adapt the choice of GCSE texts to suit the particular interests, concerns and ideas of the class being taught. The potential for students’ responses to be focused on broader literary ideas, drawing on their wider reading, has been missed. The texts I have chosen are accessible; reflective of literary traditions; and relevant to the contemporary world in which our students live. Ultimately, however, my choice of texts would always be informed by the nature of the class I am teaching and my desire to encourage young people to find reading both enjoyable and meaningful. More opportunity must be given to the professional and specialist teachers of English to make their own GCSE Literature set text choices that might enrich young people’s lives through the enjoyment of and future quests for meaningful “good reads”.
• Jas Kainth, Subject Leader of English, Old Swinford Hospital
Chosen books: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Despite the comforts of familiarity, a change can be incredibly positive but only if it’s done for the right reasons. The study of literature should inspire students to become independent readers whilst providing them with the means to think critically about life. Britain today is an amalgamation of different cultures so surely the texts studied in schools should reflect this? By having just an English focus, we could potentially be alienating groups of pupils whom we should be encouraging to participate. The dominant narratives of our country, although an important and inherent part of our literary heritage, do not reflect our present. The study of literature should allow the students to see the world afresh and escape reality, and experience the outside world from within the realms of the classroom. By only exposing them to a ‘canonised’ version of literature, we may inspire some but unfortunately exclude others.
• John Hathaway, second in the English department, The King’s School, Gloucester
Chosen books: The Circle by David Eggers and Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure
The Circle is an incredibly engaging dystopian nightmare about the dangers of social media. It takes a world that teenagers today live, eat and breathe more naturally than we do as teachers and forces them to examine that world and question whether individual privacy is a right or a crime. It acts as a mirror that surprises those who look into it with what they see. Measure for Measure deals with questions that every GCSE student will already have opinions about: morality, justice and judgement. There is nothing like the dilemma that Isabella faces to engage pupils, as they have to consider the relative worth of their own moral viewpoints compared to the value of human life. It is not the text itself that inspires young people to read but the way in which it is presented and taught. The best English classes will engage pupils by helping them to relate the world of the text they are studying to their own world, and to encourage them to see that there are a number of points of connection between those two worlds that can act as doorways, enabling them to enter, enjoy and inhabit the text in a way that transcends any superficial reading.
• Andrew Macdonald-Brown, Head of English, Moreton Hall, Oswestry
Chosen books: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle and Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
The syllabus needs overhauling – and it should be overhauled more often – but it seems to have become narrower, rather than broader. I’d happily see Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men stay on the syllabus: they’re wonderful novels, loved by generations of children. There should be a certain ‘test of time’ element: I’d have nothing published more recently than the mighty Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993). Catcher in the Rye should be there. I’d quite like to see the set novels and plays changed more frequently to keep us teachers on our toes. As for poetry, leave it to teachers to choose poems for their own classes: a set anthology published by an exam board takes all the fun out of it.
• Natasha Dangerfield, Headmistress, Westonbirt School
Chosen books: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
It is hard to choose one single book that is important for children to read as the variety and combination of options available are so strong. Giving schools a choice within the syllabus is therefore key. To Kill a Mockingbird remains the significant book from my early teens. It remains a powerful piece of literature with a depth that can be accessed at all levels and across the range of abilities you are likely to find in an average classroom. The narrator is young, in touch therefore with youthful connections that can easily resonate and be discussed in class; the themes are strong, passionate and political and as relevant now as they were when the book was written some 54 years ago. Developing an understanding of literature and a passion for reading is not just going to stem from reading ‘English’ authors. As educators we should be encouraging a broad love of literature from England and around the world, using books that are meaningful, relevant and will go on to inspire further reading outside the classroom.
• Kate Ledlie, Head of English, Dean Close School
Chosen books: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Years ago, I may have agreed with Michael Gove’s decision to remove Steinbeck’s miniature masterpiece Of Mice and Men from the syllabus, having spent a dismal summer marking over 200 essays on the significance of the shooting of Candy’s dog; I ended up fantasising about having a Luger at my own head. However, I have since learned to appreciate American literature and there is good reason why so many children study Of Mice and Men at GCSE. It endures and engages and has taught my English sets, of all abilities, important lessons; that poor people are real people; insecure, lonely and unhappy people are often bullies; dreams don’t always come true and freedom comes at a price. In addition, the tight narrative structure follows the Aristotelian pattern of tragedy, there are echoes of the Arthurian quest narrative and Steinbeck’s prose is finely-tuned. Last, but by no means least, it is a short novel. There is a lot to be said for a book that can be read aloud from cover to cover in one lesson and a communal engagement of the narrative from beginning to end can be great fun.
This article is from the September 2014 issue of A+ Education