Sunday, 25 May 2014


I suppose I should start this with an apology: I am writing this off the cuff, and will probably be far from eloquent and facetious in many of my statements. Having heard the news that Michael Gove has revamped the GCSE English syllabus and axed 'Of Mice and Men' (amongst other things),  a text I studied myself at 16 and loved, I feel compelled to protest and I can't confine myself to a tweet or two to express that protest.

I have long disagreed with the policies of this politician, who seems to be on a one man mission to make the life of a teacher as hard as it can be, and put children off really getting under the skin of their subjects. It's just occurred to me that this might be linked to University fees ..... put people off learning at an early age and therefore solve the problem of trying to fund those who cannot afford to go themselves. Then we can put fees up to five or even six figures.

I digress (and there - if you hadn't noticed - was my first facetious comment).

I have always been a voracious reader, a regular in my school library. Little Women and Anne of Green Gables were my favourites when I was young (as would be evidenced by the fact that my name filled the little cards we had to use to sign things out, and the following shameful picture taken in the Uffizi gallery - that's Anne's House of Dreams - I can tell just by the orange band at the top)

I always had a book in my hand. I could go out for dinner with my parents and their friends and be relied on not to play up because I'd just disappear into the page when I got bored. Sometimes it was hard to get me to stop reading.

I remember the first time I read 'Pride and Prejudice'. I was 12, and distinctly unimpressed with the look of it when I got it for Christmas. But I started it, and I was hooked, and then quickly devoured more of the Austen canon (although I do remember stopping halfway through 'Mansfield Park' because I couldn't recall the plot or who these annoying people were. It remains my least favourite of Austen's work.)

What I didn't do, probably because I was too busy gobbling Agatha Christie mysteries, was pick up Dickens or George Elliot. I doubt I would have stuck with either of them if I'd been forced to read them. My GCSE texts revolved around 'Macbeth', 'A View from the Bridge', 'Of Mice and Men' and the poetry anthology of OCR - which I still have actually.

I wasn't particularly academic when I was at school - university properly opened the doors for me on that - but I loved English and the worlds it took me in to. I wish we had been able to read 'To Kill a Mockingbird', I think it would have been fantastic. I envy every student who was able to read it and discuss it's themes. I honestly can't think of any other book that so brilliantly shows the struggles of growing up and learning how to be tolerant of those around you, no matter their personal circumstance. I certainly can't think of a British author who has done so that we could use to replace this seminal book in literary history (prove me wrong, please do - it's depressing to think others haven't picked up Harper Lee's themes and run with them).

Charles Dickens is brilliant - I love him - but his writing is hard to grasp, and he often goes into great detail about topics that aren't central to the story and which were probably filler to get him to the end of that week's installment in the literary review for which he wrote. The political meeting in the early stages of 'Nicholas Nickleby' springs to mind. If he were writing now, his editor would probably tell him to tighten things up. 'Middlemarch' is a doorstop of a novel - a brilliant social commentary on the changes facing a small English community, but how many 16 years olds are going to relate to it, find things that speak to them and encourage them to think? I didn't read it until my second year of university.

I do agree with the department of education's thoughts that Shakespeare should be included ... I've been shocked to learn from my nieces that they weren't studying any of his plays. But we remove the modern playwrights at our peril. Social commentary comes in many forms and Arthur Miller is one of the best at holding a mirror up to our actions. We all should read more plays; pick them up like we do a novel, and not wait for a trip to the theatre to learn about their greatness.

Twitter is going mad on this subject (hence my title of this post). Susan Hill surprised me by saying 'Set books. Point is they shld study the BEST, the great books, not the easy ones. They shouldn't be studying me.' But who gets to decide what makes a book great or the best - Michael Gove? Don't let that man anywhere near the Booker prize. And I don't think I found 'Of Mice and Men' easy. Yes, it was short, but then I was able to go away and read other things, widening my experience and enabling me to have conversations with adults, which opened up other literary doors for me. 

The thing that concerns me the most in all of this is that it feels as if one man, and one man only, is deciding how the next generation is going to turn out and destroying any possibility of diversity. If the 'classics' are being rammed down people's throats and putting them off exploring other literature because they are too drained from ploughing through 'Oliver Twist', how are we to encourage them to explore and find other things to read that they will love and re-read and pass on to their friends to read.

Setting a syllabus is a hard task, and there is no right or wrong answer, but it surely deserves more consideration and discussion. There is so much written every year on the fact that GCSE's and A Levels are getting easier. Perhaps they are, although my nieces would vehemently disagree with that suggestion. But the mode of response by those who have the responsibility to address the issues seems to be panic - rushing around like headless chickens, trying to find a quick fix and hope that it will work.

Let me tell you Mr Gove, this will not fix the problem. It will damage the literary groundwork that is so useful for young people to build their love of literature upon. This isn't about universities and higher education, but this policy will surely have a harmful effect on admissions for humanities subjects. But we won't know about that for a few years, and then it'll be too late.

So - if you are a parent of a young child or you know one who trusts your judgement, go out and buy them a copy of 'Of Mice and Men' or 'To Kill a Mockingbird' or any other book you loved when you were their age and give it to them to read. Broaden their horizons before their school years get narrowed to the vanishing point on the line of perspective.


Dark Puss said...

Dear Oxford Reader, there is flexibility in the syllabus and nothing has been "banned". This of course may not be reflected in the choices made by the three examination boards who will set a syllabus and it will be up to OFQUAL to use its judgement (or lack of it) in practice. The DfE statement says

“It doesn't ban any authors, books or genres. It does ensure pupils will learn about a wide range of literature, including at least one Shakespeare play, a 19th century novel written anywhere and post-1914 fiction or drama written in the British Isles.

“That is only the minimum pupils will be expected to learn. It is now up to exam boards to design new GCSEs, which must then be accredited by the independent exams regulator Ofqual.”

While I certainly share your and other people's expressed concerns, and (as a Scot) I remember reading Of Mice and Men with pleasure, I will reserve judgement a little longer before seeing how this plays out in practice. Given that the DfE had quite a wide ranging panel involved in these "reforms" it is unfortunate that Gove himself should have offered an opinion as I think that opens the door wide for him to be seen to be interfering in the choices (maybe that is even true of course).

Dark Puss said...

There is an interesting comment on this issue in today's Guardian by Professor Jonathan Bate who says he is responsible (in part) for the new policy. See the Review page 5.