Gove’s new list is exactly like that. Two Shakespeare plays. Romantic poetry. Nineteenth century novel. The list is just what I want to read and study. Shakespeare – great! Love the Romantics. Dickens – such fun! But, is this a curriculum for a modern age? Is this a curriculum for developing reading? Is this a curriculum aimed at creating a love of reading? Do we really want our students writing like Dickens all the time? I read Macbeth in Year 9, as a student, but that did not spark of interest in his work. In fact, it was only at University that I felt a passion stirring for good old Billy Shakespeare. The rest of the time I was indifferent. Is this new curriculum going to inspire/ create a literate nation where adults freely read Shakespeare in their free time? Is it really going to raise standards?
Yes, the new curriculum is very academic. It is meaty. It is full of complexity, richness, and (to be honest) bloat and waffle. It is clearly focused on literature and not on language. When looking at the new changes, two questions spring to mind when I look at the new curriculum:
How will these be assessed?
How will we fit these in and teach them well?
The problem with the announcements this week is that we know what we will have to teach, but we don’t know how it will be assessed. A perfect way to stop us teaching towards the exam. However, we need some idea of what we are teaching towards. What is the goal? What is the end point? It is like having a race, but not knowing the distance you are running. Oh, and of course, we have to have this in place for September.
In fact, I was starting to like the new AQA specifications (still not happy with them over the GCSE fiasco), before all of these changes. Aside from the controlled conditions elements, there was a lot of interesting stuff. Complex and challenging stuff. In principle, it was very academic. It was stuff that I have taught at A-level. Often, the argument has been that GCSEs do not prepare students for A-levels and that there is too much dumbing down and spoon-feeding of knowledge. However, the new AQA specifications are academic. Compare one Shakespeare play with another or a novel. Write a linguistic analysis of a conversation in a particular workplace. Both tasks are things I have set and marked as an A-level teacher. The issue lies in the texts.
The use of modern texts ‘seems’ to be a sign of dumbing down. Not a sign of making subjects relevant to our students. Let’s insist on another Shakespeare play. That isn’t dumbing down. Let’s pile on more Shakespeare. Really the issue lies, Mr Gove, in what is done with the text. More is not always best. I teach Shakespeare in varied and interesting ways, but reading a play from start to finish is like dragging someone over hot coals. It is painful. My wife, sadly, barely stays awake in most of the Shakespeare plays I drag her to. She manages to fall asleep at the most dramatic and spectacular bits. Cue snoring while Hamlet lies dying and Juliet wakes up to find Romeo dead. It is too alien for her and others like her. She is a bright and intelligent woman, yet she finds the language convoluted. I have tried my best, but she has a point. Does reading Shakespeare make me intelligent? Does it make me ‘academic’? It makes me part of an elitist group of people: yes, I am one of those few people that sit in RSC theatres and titter when I hear a witty pun or play on words, but does it really make a good measuring stick for intelligence?
Shakespeare can be the English teacher’s answer to ‘The Da Vinci Code’. Come on class. Work out what this character is saying. What clues are there? How has the writer encoded the anger in the line? The usual response is based on guesses and a sea of bemused faces. Most English teachers know that you select key scenes and work closely with those. You unpeel the layers and work things out together. It can work, but sometimes it makes academia seem like alchemy.
Let me make myself clear: I do not want Shakespeare removed from the curriculum. It teaches students a lot about life, history, drama and language use. But, I don’t think we should have more of it, when we could have been teaching another book. I want students to write more like some contemporary writers (probably not Will Self as his recent book has no paragraphs in it at all) and less like Shakespeare. I was quite hopeful when I heard Gove’s speech on the importance of reading. I want more reading in English. I want to read more than one novel a year with a class and the new curriculum suggests that this is the drive, but they have created another problem. The problem we face is that now we have less chance of them reading more, because of the need to fit more of these academic tomes of literature into lessons. I want students to improve spelling , grammar and accuracy, yet the texts we give them have dated spelling rules (Shakespeare) and convoluted and obscure grammar structures (Shakespeare and Victorian novelists). Students will learn better if we gave them suitable material that they can emulate copy or even steal. I’d rather they wrote like Will Self, but with paragraphs, and less like Shakespeare. A great English teacher will always link lessons to the large canon of literature and to the great writers, but we put modern writers in the window to entice customers into our shop.
Right, I am just off to plan my Year 9s lessons. We are just working on a topic bridging GCSE and KS3. We are reading ‘Middlemarch’. We felt it would help prepare them to read ‘War and Peace’ in Year 10.
Thanks for reading,