ExamAs you may know, I was a teacher long before I put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to write novels. Although I taught in primaries, since giving up the day job, I’ve done one afternoon a week at Lambeth Academy as part of my work with First Story. Working with older students, talking to teachers, and seeing recent exam papers has got me thinking about the way we teach English in schools and how many pupils fail to engage with the subject. Recently an idea has been brewing in my head, a way to ensure that young people leave school with the skills they need. I honestly can’t decide if it’s a good idea or if I’m a ‘swivel eyed loon’, so I thought I’d share here. Basically this is one of those ‘if I was in charge of education for a day’ posts. (At least I’ve worked in schools, our actual Education Minister can’t say the same).

For the most part, I’d leave primary education alone. I’d obviously get rid of phonics testing in Year One, but so would anyone. The English curriculum is divided, at primary level, into reading, writing and speaking & listening. These are assessed in each child. My proposed changes kick in at high school level. In the UK, all pupils sit examinations in English Language and English Literature, although the existing National Curriculum (about to undergo a major change) is still divided into reading, writing and speaking & listening.

It was when helping some Year 12 students prepare for their English resits that I realised the current system isn’t relevant to all pupils. When I was at school, I loved books and reading so never really considered how heartbreaking a compulsory English exam must be, how soul destroying, for young people who don’t enjoy reading. A huge number of young people loathe reading and do not do it for pleasure. Why are we forcing them?

I wonder if we could change the system to suit everyone. What if the English Literature part of the curriculum was an elective subject – an ‘option’ at Year 9? Art, drama and music are all ‘options’, yet literature (an art form the last time I checked) is thrust upon all young people regardless of their passion or talent in this medium.

I’d propose, alongside ‘English Literature’, a compulsory new subject called ‘Communication’. This would contain elements of the existing English Language and Speaking & Listening syllabus. This subject would contain essentials that grown ups need to get by in the workplace and society (‘making a positive contribution’ is what the curriculum wants). I hated Maths because I felt a lot of it wasn’t relevant for my life. I was right. I suspect kids who hate English feel very much the same way about the Brontes.

‘Communication’ would include: debate; forming arguments; turn-taking (you’d be surprised); interview skills; report writing; formal letter writing; standard and non-standard English; dialect; grammar; spelling; conversation; drama; listening and responding; critical thinking skills; problem solving…basically key skills any employer would look for. That sounds really dry in a list, but think of a module in which young people¬† had to study the conflict in the Middle East or something: looking at bias in print and TV journalism, debating the pros and cons of the conflict and writing both sides of the argument. It doesn’t HAVE to be dry. Don’t forget those who did love books and reading would still be able to opt for Literature too.

This is controversial, BUT isn’t THAT far off what’s actually happening. Unless you are at school or have kids currently sitting exams you might not be aware that not ALL pupils sit Literature as it is. In fact, only more able, ‘High Band Jesson pupils’, who achieve well in a Year 10 English Language exam will even go on to sit an English Literature test in Year 11. Less able pupils, the charmingly labelled ‘Low Band Jesson’ pupils will sit a single exam: GCSE English, which is basically English Language (with some Lit elements in their coursework). At least with my proposal, any young person who enjoyed reading and creative writing would be able to sit English Lit. Everyone should have access to literature, or you end up in a Waste Land situation with some parts of society being excluded.

I’m sure there will be people reading this who think that we should force all young people to read. I agree. Being able to read is vital. What I’m saying is, novels and poems might not be. I know, an author just said that. Of course we love books! I suspect a lot of people reading this will be authors, readers and bloggers – but what if you didn’t? Would you want to do something you hated every single day? I suspect there will be people saying I’m suggesting an elitist two-tier system, but it’s certainly no more elitist than the one that already exists. If anything, it’s fairer, because EVERYONE would have to sit the ‘Communication’ qualification. Not only pupils who have been read to since the womb, brought up surrounded by books at home, or with access to libraries could excel at this subject.

You can see for yourself how baffling the current system is. I think employers would appreciate a simpler qualification too, and understand the transferable skills it brings with it. At the moment, a poor grade in English equates to ‘I’m not too hot at reading comprehension tests or describing a park by night with florid similes’, but are employers aware of this? Probably not.

There is a potential flaw. What if there’s a pupil who hates, hates, hates reading until that one fateful day in English when their teacher strolls in with To Kill A Mockingbird and then they love books forever. Well yes, that might happen, but if they’re a ‘Low Band’ pupil they might not find themselves in that situation as it is. Remember, in my idea, they would only ‘drop’ Literature at Year 10 – I think that’s plenty of time for a young person to decide if they love reading and creative writing.

Perhaps if we weren’t forcing sixteen year-olds from Brixton to read Austen, beating the love of reading out of them with a list of core texts that’s barely changed in fifty years, they would find their way to reading in their own time. SPOILER: There’s not a lot of Cassandra Clare, John Green or manga on the list, you guys. My brother-in-law only reads sporting autobiographies, and what’s wrong with that? We need all young people to read, we don’t need them to read Keats. There is a place for creative writing and literary criticism, but it’s not appropriate for all young people.

Clearly no one is actually asking for my opinion, but with the curriculum about to change into something hotly contested, now is the time for discussion about English. Michael Gove, the current education secretary, seems rosy eyed about his own education and many of the changes seem to look backward rather than forward. I understand my idea is a little radical, but at least it offers something new. Something new is needed because too many young people are leaving school without ‘English’, but I wonder how many of them would succeed at ‘Communication’.


5 thoughts on “An Idea About English Literature

  • May 21, 2013 at 11:27 am

    My daughters are at the age where very soon they will be considering which subjects they want to take for GCSE’s and I would whole heartedly support your idea of a separate subject called Communications. My daughters are not readers which is really hard for me. On closer inspection and after long discussions with the school, I realise that the problem comes down to the books that are on offer. The school uses a system called Renaissance Learning (http://www.arbookfind.co.uk/usertype.aspx) in order to determine their reading age. I’ve just spent a few hours on this site and it clear to me that this system isn’t very good and definitely not up to date. I have at least six newly published books that aren’t on there as well as older publications. If the book isn’t on there, the children can’t be quizzed on it, therefore they cannot improve their reading age. To me, this comes across as an archaic system obviously not supported by publishers as the latest books would be on there before or around publication.
    I am very much against Shakespeare still being taught in schools for English Lit. I understand that Shakespeare was a talented writer, but isn’t it a little of date now? Aren’t there better, more relevant texts that could be used. Why isn’t English Literature embracing more of the modern literature out that that also deals with real life issues that teenagers face??? As you can see I’m basically appalled by the state of the English Lit/Language option/ syllabus and I honestly believe it needs a complete overhaul!

  • May 21, 2013 at 11:31 am

    I agree with everything except Shakespeare who so shaped modern literature. I think you have to study him to understand where so many of the themes we, as YA authors, are coming from.

    Still, that sounds like a shitty system. ‘Reading Age’ makes me want to punch people. #AggressiveHomosexual

  • May 21, 2013 at 11:39 am

    I’ve just sent a letter to the head concerning it. I understand that Shakespeare shaped modern literature, but isn’t it time for a change?

  • May 21, 2013 at 1:23 pm

    An interesting post, James, and equally interesting comments, Vivienne.

    As an ex-secondary teacher, I think all students can and should read Shakespeare and similarly challenging “canonical” texts. I loved teaching Richard III, R & J, Macbeth to students who were considered less academic. What I hated doing with these kids was forcing them through a written exam that expected them to analyse language, using quotes from the text to back up their points, etc. Yes, this skill is important for anyone who wants to go on and study literature or history at a higher level, but it was a real demotivator for too many kids. What was enjoyable and engaging for them were the STORY elements, the drama, the characters, the issues and ideas. And, of course, the language came alive, too, when put in a context that was relevant to them. I loved watching and discussing good film versions of the plays (and incorporating film techniques into the learning…why did Polanski shoot this scene like this?) and taking them to see live productions and doing drama work. I think a Shakespeare “appreciation” unit might work. Most Shakespeare texts have relevance to today’s world, but getting bogged down in analytical exams and fetishising the language is a shameful waste of time. The same applies to wider reading–more books should be read, not fewer, and the English curriculum should be about fostering the love of reading and learning, not just using archaic texts as exam-fodder.

    Sadly, Vivienne, any overhaul with the present people in power, will probably move in the other direction. What did Gove say saying about Dryden and Pope? Puh-lease…

    xx JANE

  • May 30, 2013 at 8:43 pm

    Interesting post. Although I teach in FE, I was having the same discussion with a teacher this week. Allowing teachers to ‘choose’ texts that suit the needs of individual learners would go some way to ‘engage’ pupils in English Literature. Functional Skills courses are a little like the Communications course you propose and incorporate reading, writing, speaking and listening. These are also taught in the context of improving employability skills and some pupils attend these courses at FE colleges, instead of studying a conventional GCSE. Let’s not forget also that in deprived areas, many children’s only exposure to books is in the classroom, so for that reason, encouraging reading can only be a good thing. I’m all for making reading relevant and interesting, using comics, whatever will foster a love of words and language.


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