…so said Scout Finch, the precocious and plucky little girl cast as the narrator in Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning, modern American classic, To Kill A Mockingbird. As is so often the way with children, Scout is afforded the space in the novel to pose the questions that adults would not dream of verbalising. Too politically incorrect, too personally insensitive, too socially impolite. But just because some questions aren’t always comfortable ones to hear or answer, doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be asked. Or answered for that matter.
I am so pleased that when it comes to Michael Gove’s ongoing butchery of the UK school education system and curricula, people are willing to keep asking the difficult questions. I do not see this blog as my ideological platform. It just doesn’t normally seem like the right place for that. This is not a rant about politics or political parties. It is a lament over why anyone would want to make an educative curriculum or syllabus any less engaging or enticing than it already is.
The UK media has recently been reporting that the exam board OCR will this week announce its new draft syllabus, for accreditation by the regulatory body, Ofqual. Nothing particularly interesting there, you might think. But then it emerges that they are making a conscious move away from literary classics such as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
It seems unlikely that OCR will be the only exam board to do so, and the Guardian newspaper on-line is already anticipating that Edexcel will follow suit. The reason? According to a spokesperson for OCR, to shift the syllabus to be ‘more focused on tradition’, with around three-quarters of the books included now coming from the (predominantly pre-20th Century) ‘canon of English literature’.
Although the Department for Education have stated that their criteria for subject content and assessment ‘doesn’t ban any authors, books or genres’, the OCR are directly attributing the changes to Michael Gove’s very clear stance on the inclusion or exclusion of certain texts or genres over others.
I find it all saddening and maddening in equal measure. GCSEs are the qualification tipping point on the British educational scale. Teenagers either leave school after attaining them, into the world of work or unemployment, or they continue on to further vocational training or school/college based education. For many employers, good attainment of GCSEs in English and Maths is still used as a minimum yardstick for employability. So it is by no means unimportant that students care enough about what they are studying to do well.
According to the BBC, ‘some academics have pointed out the reason schools opt to study…[To Kill A Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men]…is because they are accessible to students across a range of abilities’. Why is that a bad thing? I am all for academic rigour and maintaining standards. But surely the point at this level should be to instil, first and foremost, an interest in literature, together with the essential basic skills of literary analysis and discussion. If texts are not accessible enough to fill students with a pleasure and thirst for reading, why would they – especially those struggling anyway – persevere with the denser, more complicated texts from ‘the canon of English literature’?
The ancient Greek philosopher Plutarch compared education to the kindling of a flame, rather than the filling of a vessel. I could not agree more. John Steinbeck is widely recognised as a literary giant, but Of Mice and Men gives a delightfully accessible taster of his writing. That was the utter brilliance of its inclusion in the GCSE curricula. By comparison, imagine starting cold with East of Eden or The Grapes of Wrath. As fantastic as they are, that would have been an altogether different prospect.
If this change by OCR is a sign of things to come, then I am genuinely worried. I worry about what this all means for future GCSE attainment levels, and the knock-on effect that will have on the health and reputation of the British education system. I worry about what impact it will ultimately have on the employability of British young people and their ability to meaningfully contribute to the jobs market and our faltering UK economy. More fundamentally, I worry what it says about our nation, that in the 21st Century we seem to have a Secretary of State for Education who appears hell-bent on dragging schooling back to the Victorian era.
In an age of global media, multi-faith and multi-cultural societies, and the ever-present thirst for travel and life experience, why would an outwardly modern, democratic country support a move towards an academic syllabus which is so heavily Anglo-centric?
Yes I read Shakespeare at school (I grew up in Stratford upon Avon…how could I not?!), Dickens and, even Chaucer at University. My bookshelves grown under the weight of their classics, alongside other British favourites of mine – the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, Oliver Goldsmith, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene.
But I have also read some phenomenal classic, modern classic, and contemporary novels from writers around the world. The likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Leo Tolstoy, Vikram Seth, Michael Ondaatje, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Simone de Beauvoir, Arundhati Roy, Toni Morrison, Kasuo Ishiguro, Amy Tan, Orhan Pamuk, and Markus Zusak to name but a few. I genuinely believe that this breadth of reading has opened my eyes. Informed my thinking. Made me a more well-rounded person. I have no doubt that there are more than enough pre-20th Century British works for a person to read them and only them for an entire lifetime. But think of all the incredible books and wonderful writers that would be missed along the way.
I can attribute at least some of my immense love of reading, books, and literature to studying To Kill A Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men when I was doing my GCSEs. They helped kindle that flame in me, and I went on to relish studying English Literature at both A level and Undergraduate level. They remain on my list of lifelong favourites. They are called Modern Classics for a reason. Why does it matter whether they are American or English literature?
I have read books set all over the world, by authors from all over the world. I have read high-brow literature, and modern classics which feel like old friends I’ve read them so many times. But I have also read my fair share of ‘holiday novels’ and easy page-turners that won’t ever win any literary prizes but which have been so readable I have been gripped from start to finish. Most importantly I have read, and will continue to read, because I was given the opportunity to develop an unshakeable love of reading. I fervently hope that the dangerously short-sighted educational policies of one man don’t deny a whole generation of would-be readers the same pleasure.
So perhaps, to step back from the scholarly and quote from I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!, somebody should remind Mr Gove that ‘the more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go’. Yes okay, it’s a quote from a Dr Seuss book. For children. And he’s American. But, do you think he maybe has a point?