Worcester Provost defends role in English syllabus overhaul

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The Provost of Worcester College has defended his role in encouraging the controversial changes to the GCSE English syllabus made by Michael Gove last week. 

In an article written for The Guardian, Jonathan Bate, the current Provost at Worcester College and a Professor of the University English faculty, proclaimed his support for the changes. 

He revealed that it was his recommendation, given in as part of an advice group, which was the driving force behind the adjustment. He wrote: “I am delighted to see that the broad GCSE English guidelines emerging from the Department for Education followed the path I had suggested almost to the letter.”

Mr Gove’s latest educational reforms inspired much indignation when they were announced last week. The changes follow the government’s move to reform  the GCSE English Literature exam syllabus whereby a section of the exam exploring texts from different cultures will instead cover the work of British writers. 

Controversially, classics such as John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men were removed, along with the poetry of the recently deceased Maya Angelou. 

The apparent cultural bias and discrimination against American literature provoked an angry response from teachers and students alike. One first-year English student commented: “Some of the new set texts are welcome additions, but the way in which the new regime limits the cultural range of literary study is seriously worrying.”

Three examination boards – AQA, OCR and Eduqas – have removed Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and added modern authors such as Ishiguro and Syal in their place on the list of works to be taught for the new exam.

In his article Mr Bate confessed that “the idea was mine, not Michael Gove’s” and went on to defend his decision: “In recent years, I have been increasingly alarmed at how many [prospective University applicants] have not read a single work of English literature written before 1900, apart from Shakespeare.”

He went on to argue that “teachers teach best when they teach what they are passionate about”.

Bate commented that he was “completely baffled at how and why this attempt to liberate teachers and bring the best out of our schoolchildren by stretching and stimulating them to the utmost turned this week into a global Twitterstorm.”

“The craven examination boards are the real culprits who cannot free themselves from a ludicrously old-fashioned notion of a canon of set texts.”

Matthew Davies, a second-year at Queen’s, commented: “Professor Bate’s piece for The Guardian seems disingenuous to me. He sidesteps the question of geographical and cultural diversity entirely.

“If my finals paper in Anglo-Saxon has taught me anything, it’s that even the earliest literature produced on these isles owes a huge debt to foreign texts of many different varieties, and one would only hope that a modern A-Level in English literature could reach these same dizzying heights of multiculturalism.”

Others were more supportive of the change. Carolyne Larrington, Tutor and Fellow in English at St John’s college, said: “The more range and choice in the GCSE syllabus, the better, and teachers should be enabled to range away from the set texts to teach whatever they find stimulating.”

From her experience in interviewing applicants for English, she agrees that studying texts which are more “relevant to British cultural circumstances” is appropriate, adding that “earlier texts, as Jonathan Bate suggests, are preferable”.

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