Wednesday, 28 May 2014

A reaction to a reaction reacting to someone else’s reaction

Gosh, what a week it has been! There once used to be a time when an English teacher’s life was quite quiet, but now I am forever faced with bombshells of educational delight on a daily basis. The most dramatic things we used to get, in the past, was the changing of the Bic pen design. The furore that caused still gives me nightmares. There were teachers shouting. There were teachers campaigning. There were even some teachers writing nice little letters to the makers used the traditional style pen in the hope of changing the maker’s mind. Nowadays, it is change after change. It has got so bad, I dread the holidays or days when I am not teaching. Didn’t it used to be the other way round? Nowadays, all the big education news stories are timed for when I am supposed to be recharging my batteries or having some down time. But, no! They’re on the front cover of the newspaper is a picture of Mr Gove announcing his new ‘idea’. Ignore it, Chris. Go home. But, no! They’re on the television in a news story about the new proposal. Sadly, there is no escape from things. No longer can we hide from these things. The changes permeate the air like a bad smell and no amount of Fabreeze or Glade plugins will clear the air. You can’t escape it.

So in a nutshell: ‘Of Mice and Men’ is dead and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ has been taken out by a hit man.  Gove did it apparently. However, he categorically denies it. Plus, he is clever enough to spot the abuses of language. These texts haven’t been ‘banned’, as some people have suggested. They have just been taken off the set text list. Teachers will not be locked away if they teach them in schools. There will be no Jack Bauer torturing teachers if they dare mention the book in lessons. In fact, we can, and we probably will, use these books in lessons. I know I will. A good book is a good book irrespective of the country it comes from.

They haven’t been banned; they are just not going to be examined. The banning of controlled assessments means that there will probably more time for books like ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. So what if they are not going to be examined? I will no longer have to spend months and months of teaching the text, when I can simply teach it for enjoyment. No longer will I have to prefix my comments about the texts with: ‘Remember this for the exam’.  In fact, I will probably use it at the start of Year 10. What better way to prepare students in Year 10 for GCSE? An engaging text from the start.

There have been lots of arguments and discussions on Twitter and blogs about the list of set texts for English. People have argued what should and shouldn’t be on the list. When reading this, I am reminded by one Australian English teacher’s comment in a conference: ‘It’s funny that the one book that most students read in England is an American novel.’ My problem is always the list of books is so uninspiring. I am generally not too inspired by the choice of books used. There’s so much furore over ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ because they are inspiring choices. They motivate teachers, as well as students. I have always internally groaned when I have seen previous exam lists for set texts. They have always looked like the 10p bargain box in a charity shop. A collection of random books that would never be seen together on a shelf. They are an obscure list. It always surprises me that with all the fiction created in the English language these are the choices. Now, don’t get me on to the drama. Too late: the drama texts chosen are dire and insipid. England has a history of fine drama and we end up will dross. Or, very superficial plays. I, personally, have always struggled with ‘An Inspector Calls’. A nice play, but not really complex enough for GCSE. Give me Miller any day for complex emotions and subtle nuances.

I had a look at the OCR draft specifications for English Literature. I was hoping for a new lease of life for inspiring texts to teach. In my head, I had planned what I wish would be on there. What do I get?

Six modern texts:

• Anita and Me – Meera Syal

• Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

• Animal Farm – George Orwell

• An Inspector Calls – J. B. Priestley

• My Mother Said I Never Should – Charlotte Keatley

• DNA – Dennis Kelly.

Am I inspired? Am I …? ‘Animal Farm’ will become the new ‘Of Mice and Men’. And, ‘Never Let Me Go’ will become the new ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. You know in your heart that the dream combination, which used to be the popular ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘An Inspector Calls’, will be ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘An Inspector Calls’. Again, I’ll say it: out of everything written in the English language and this is what they came up with. Six modern texts. Six – why only six?

My hope and inspiration will lie in the classic texts and the pre1914 choices of text. This is what is suggested in the draft specifications:

·         Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

• Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

• The War of the Worlds – H G Wells

• The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson

• Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

Well, each text is good on its own, but as a choice of texts I am underwhelmed. Again, six texts. I would have loved to have seen some Hardy on there, or maybe some obscure writers of fiction. No, these titans are dragged out as being the pinnacle of literature. There, sadly for me, is no breadth of text here. I feel constricted rather than inspired. The choices made are short / long texts. Or, boy-orientated / girl-orientated texts.

This could have been a pinnacle moment in the teaching of English. We could have been inspired by the choices. We could have been delighted with the choices given. Yet, I can’t help feeling that the modern texts are a mishmash of texts and the pre1914 are just safe, somewhat predictable, choices.

If we are to have an education system to be proud of, then we need to have texts that are a reflection of the quality we aspire to. I can’t help feeling underwhelmed with the choices. Are these the choices of text that will mark a child’s soul indelibly for life? Will these choices inspire them to study at A-level? Will they inspire them to read? Will they inspire them to read again and again?

I don’t feel inspired by the choices. I know I can teach the texts, but where will the magic come from, if I am not wholly inspired.   

On a cultural point, the texts of English past never really dealt with disability and race, as it was often shoved into the attic or left in another country of our colonial past. I live in a multi-cultural society. The texts here represent texts with a predominant focus on class and money. In fact, money features heavily in all the texts. The difference between the rich and the poor is the dilemma at the heart of the stories. ‘Great Expectations’, ‘Jane Eyre’, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ are about a character’s journey to becoming rich. ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ is parable of what the rich do when they have a lot of money and a lot of free time – they live a dual existence where they crush the poor and the weak by standing on young children. ‘The War of the World’ has a thin connection to money, but the alien invaders are probably only after people’s money. Go back to your own planet!

What is more worrying is that ‘The War of the World’ is a comment on xenophobia, which is something we need to work on. It is surprising that at a time when the far-right are gaining some power, we are removing texts from a GCSE curriculum that challenge views about racism and promote tolerance. Our view of the past, as seen through literature, is class dominated in England. We don’t need to see things solely in terms of class. In schools, we teach. Through books, we teach students about society. Through these books, we will teach students they are from a class orientated society. Through these books, we will teach (incorrectly) them that world is shaped by white men and women.

‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ may be leftie texts, but they both told stories about a society that is made up of different people with different sets of values. The story is about how different people live together and how tolerance is an important part of modern life.  How men, women, the poor, the rich, the black community, the white community, the able and the disabled have to work together and not against each other.

It is funny how the two books of America’s past are so relevant now. Both books are about an economic depression. Both books show a society with lots of different kinds of people. Both books show people working together to make the world a better place despite the harsh conditions they live in. There’s a real sense of irony about things. UKIP is receiving more votes and we are removing two books that have scope for making some see things from a different perspective.

But, who cares? We have a Conservative government and so we are obsessed with money. It is only right then that social justice is ignored and we concentrate on those that have money and those that don’t have it.

‘It’s funny that the one book that most students read in England is an American novel.’

Thanks for reading,



  1. You're right: teachers need to be inspired to teach. Sadly, I don't see much in here that is ground-breaking or stimulating for all abilities. In fact, if anything, huge swathes of SEN kids will struggle with the 'comparing a novel with an unseen text' question, or writing essays without the 19th C text in front of them.

    Education should be inclusive - giving all abilities the opportunity to succeed. This new syllabus makes it even harder for the borderliners and low ability students to achieve. More than that, I'd like to see books that kids engage with. TKAM always did that for my students, along with OM&M. I personally can't bear Animal Farm or Lord of The Flies. So the so-called broader studying Gove promised is in fact utter nonsense when one looks at the set text. The English syllabus is no better...

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