English literature Gove-style

Submitted by Matthew on 4 June, 2014 - 10:47

In a document made available in November last year, Michael Gove set out his policy towards the new English Literature GCSE, an exam he intends to be taught from September 2015. This is what the policy document says:

This document sets out the full range of content for GCSE specifications in English literature. Awarding organisations may, however, use any flexibility to increase depth, breadth or context within the specified topics or to consolidate teaching of the subject content.

In addition to the content in the “Detailed study”, the examination must include questions on texts that students have not read previously (“unseen” texts).

Students should study a range of high quality, intellectually challenging, and substantial whole texts in detail. These must include: at least one play by Shakespeare; at least one 19th century novel; a selection of poetry since 1789, including representative Romantic poetry; fiction or drama from the British Isles from 1914 onwards.

All works should have been originally written in English.

To broaden their knowledge of literature, and enhance their critical and comparative understanding, students should read widely within the range above to prepare them for “unseen” texts in the examination.

DfE 11 November 2013 (revised from July 2013, after consultation)

Exam boards (“awarding organisations”) have recently begun to release details of the set texts students must study under the new framework. Some long-established texts have been dropped, in accordance with Gove’s view that at least in its modern form it is only acceptable to study prose fiction written both in English and within the British Isles.

This is a shift from the previous position, which allowed prose fiction written in English, but from (potentially) anywhere. Prose texts from the USA or Australia, for example, have routinely been set for study in the past, and some boards specifically include a choice of texts in English from “different cultures and traditions”.

The loss under the new rules of John Steinbeck’s Depression-era novella Of Mice And Men helped spark a furore in the media. This text, reportedly a pet dislike of Gove’s, has been widely used in schools for decades.

Hostility directed at Gove seems to have stemmed from confusion about what exactly has happened. Gove did not ban any named book, for he is not directly responsible for the specific detail of the exam. But his new framework has redrawn the parameters within which exam boards can operate, and this has meant a change to the texts available.

Exam boards are regulated by a body, Ofqual, which is legally required to “have regard to such aspects of government policy as the Secretary of State may direct”.

Gove claims his reforms will enable students to read a wider range of texts than has previously been the case. We shall see. His new framework requires the exam contain questions on “unseen” texts (albeit such texts must still meet Gove’s parameters). This is a way to steer teachers towards engaging students with a choice of texts in addition to those named by the exam board.

It is important not to dismiss the extent to which teachers can still, despite Gove, decide the overall shape of the English Literature course, and choose what their students study.

In a two-year course, it would seem possible that teachers will have some space to introduce texts (or parts of texts) which they think best suit the needs and interests of their students, regardless of the new parameters.

Equally, the room for manoeuvre shouldn’t be exaggerated. Constraints placed on schools by the wider accountability and performativity regimes in operation, most notably the pressure to ensure students secure a grade in line with imposed floor-targets, will have an impact.

There is an established body of evidence to show that the backwash effect of any high-stakes exam generates intense teaching-to-the-test. Such teaching tends to limit what pupils are offered since teachers opt to focus (perhaps exclusively) on what will be tested.

There is some counter-evidence (notably via the Cambridge Primary Review in relation to KS2 SATs) that a broader and richer curriculum offer raises attainment for all. But to expect secondary schools suddenly to let a thousand flowers bloom in the English classroom is naive. A crucial factor will be whether or not the revised English Literature course figures as one of the subjects used to determine a school’s League Table position.

Wariness about Govian exam reform is sensible. Gove has a reactionary view of what teaching and learning should be, and a dogged determination to change the prevailing mindset of the profession, which he regards as pervaded by “progressive” ideas. His decision to do away with any coursework element in the English Literature exam, and to prevent students from having access in the exam to the texts they have studied, is likely to see students rehearse stock responses and memorise only an all-purpose set of quotations to deploy in any answer. Such strictures prevent students from demonstrating informed, responsive and authentically personal rejoinders to questions, and from exploring ideas during an exam in close and detailed engagement with the text.

Gove’s new policy raises again the issue of who should decide the parameters, if not the specific content, of what children learn? This issue is bound up with arguments about the National Curriculum (NC), from which, under Gove’s destructive regime, increasing numbers of English schools can opt out.

In such circumstances, what is left of the argument for common entitlement which underpinned broad acceptance of the NC as originally introduced?

In relation to English Literature, what texts ought students to be able to meet, who should decide, and how?

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