He may have lost his job at the helm of education policy, but like shambling zombies the reforms Michael Gove birthed have lurched on relatively unscathed. Now one has reached the classroom – and it wants to get inside pupils’ brains.
The details of the changes to GCSE English literature are unfortunately more prosaic, but hidden inside pages of government consultations, assessment objectives and new specifications lie some startling changes in areas one may not expect. ‘Banning’ Of Mice and Men may have made the headlines, but alterations to the poetry component of the course could have a greater effect on pupils. Essentially, exams will now be closed book – meaning that 15 or so set poems will have to be memorised by pupils so that they can carry out the “close analysis” necessary for examination success. “To know a poem by heart is to own a great work of art for ever” Gove explains: a gift to pupils they can put alongside their slates and Empress of India mugs.
Many teachers have jumped to gaze into the gift horse’s mouth, and have predictably found the abyss staring back. “Only a tiny minority of learners with astonishing powers of memory will be able to recall fifteen poems completely enough for authentic analysis in an exam” asserts Mary Meredith, who launched an epetition to protest the changes. Poets have lined up to condemn it: Jane Weir claims it is “a form of punishment, disguised as a virtue.” There are fears that the changes will put pupils off poetry, all because one ideologically-driven Tory trapped in the Victorian era has a fetish for rote memorisation. Learning poetry is good, we are assured, as long as we’re not made to learn it: “It’s a personal thing, not an institutional one”, Weir concludes.
All this makes sense. Wonderful as poetry is when it’s lifting your spirit to raptures of hitherto unimaginable delight, committing the 15 entries in the Pearson Poetry Anthology to memory (a compilation that appears to have changed little from when I took my own GCSE under the old specification, and is as uninspiring to me now as it was then) is unlikely to convert 15 and 16 year olds to Mr Gove’s vision. It will make exams harder, but this is of dubious merit if it doesn’t increase rigour. And it’s hard to see how not being able to view the poem will encourage thoughtful, close analysis: regurgitating information memorised along with the poems seems a more likely outcome. But maybe that’s no bad thing.
After all, if the aim is to examine how well pupils can analyse poetry – its choice of language, its structure, its rhythm; in short, all those ‘poetic techniques’ drilled into our heads in English lessons – then surely an unseen poem is the best way to do this? You have the entire text, printed neatly with every fifth line numbered and every pupil a tabula rasa, uncorrupted by the interpretations and explanations offered by their teachers. Here everyone must decide for themselves what the text means and how it communicates that meaning. This is real textual analysis – or at any rate, more real than the recitation of a teacher’s lesson. Accordingly, unseen poems continue to make an appearance on the new specification.
From this perspective, the anthologies set by exam boards aren’t primarily designed for close individual analysis. They’re about contrasts and comparisons; themes and theories; context and cultures. The point of learning them in class is so that in an exam analysis of technique can be blended with knowledge of background to tease out meanings, then compare how other poets use different techniques for similar aims, and evaluate the results.
So are Gove’s zombies so shambolic after all? My old English teacher surprised me when he expressed support for the alterations: “Of course you run the risk of it becoming purely a memory game. But then we already tell pupils to learn the poems so they don’t waste time flicking through the anthology in exams.” Memorising the poems is already best practice: the reforms will pull everyone up to a similar level, actually encouraging all pupils to have individual insights into what they’re reading and to draw intelligent comparisons between different works. Perhaps Michael Gove was driven less by ideology than some teachers assume.