I always tend to find the reactionary, scaremongering claims made against Michael Gove quite amusing. ‘Education Secretary bans US texts from schools’. How radical and objectively untrue.
The Education Secretary was very quick to suppress any uproar from within the teaching profession, ‘All we are doing is asking exam boards to broaden – not narrow – the books young people study for GCSE.’ The idea of promoting a better selection of literature to read should be welcomed by English teachers, not shaped into something of a backward, pro-Conservative agenda.
The Department for Education is making significant progress in reforming GCSE syllabi; and now allowing students to think harder and persist for longer at various literary works. After all, some texts are easier to read, dissect and comprehend than 18th century poetry. Perhaps teachers objected to the supposed ban on American novels because they’re averse to tackling a Shakespeare play.
It hadn’t surprised me at all when Labour called Gove’s changes ‘ideological’ and ‘backward-looking’. To my mind, allowing students to appreciate the depth and power of the English literary heritage is of great relevance and importance if one if going to leave school with a GCSE in English literature. Students cannot just be exposed to 20th century American novels for their core texts. The writers of our own English plays, poems and novels are steeped in just as much social, historical and cultural context.
The Education Secretary has also been accused of literary snobbery, according to a member of the OCR exam board executive, claiming Gove’s hate of Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’. Given that up to 90% of literature students have studied this text in the past, it is no surprise to me that the Education Secretary has articulated his intention for change. It is clear that there is an over-reliance on long-standing core texts and, despite their enduring popularity in schools, we cannot allow this kind of uncritical satisfaction to exist.
Teachers should be stretching the reading abilities of young people, not racing to finish the six chapters from ‘Of Mice and Men’ . Evidently there is a worrying culture of low expectations and, while it is easily forgotten, Gove is responsible for ensuring exam boards do not ‘race to the bottom’. This is a pragmatic issue and one that needs addressing to bring the next cohort of GCSE literature candidates up to a higher level of academic attainment.
However, whether or not Steinbeck’s novella gets the shelf, it’s apt to remember Gove’s top tip on ‘…making an assertion unsupported by evidence is the sort of thing exam boards would want to discourage.’
It is hard to argue against including the genius of our country’s literary work in examination syllabi. To my mind ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ by Dickens is just as thematic a novel as Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ – but admittedly more of a challenge. However, what is wrong with giving teachers more incentive to offer different texts to students of different abilities? Rigour and quality in an academic qualification is what Gove is fighting for; being able to differentiate between students and cracking down on the strings of A*s. Furthermore, let’s remind ourselves that the study of GCSE English literature should encourage students to read widely for pleasure, and serve as preparation for studying literature at a higher level. Again, racing to the bottom by choosing Steinbeck over Shakespeare is an insult to pupils who, in Gove’s own words, ‘deserve an education system that can compete with the best in the world.’
I have a deep-rooted admiration for Gove’s transformation of UK schools and curricula. His sole aim is to drive up standards, rigour and discipline in learning. This can only be achieved by combating classic literary works such as Shakespeare, Dickens, Shelley and Keates. I’d much rather an Education Secretary preside over the broadening and strengthening of my children’s literary education than one who pertains to complacency.