There are two ways to begin this: “Yesss!” repeated several times to the accompaniment of fists clenched and pumping. It’s very tempting – “Yesss! Yessss!”
You get the picture: unadulterated triumph, vindication, delight that something I have been whingeing about in print, at parties, in meetings and at bus stops for many years has finally been fixed. At a stroke. Not by me, unless my low but constant dissenting voice was actually heard in high circles, but by Michael Gove himself.
I know, I know – there are many in the education world who have their doubts, thunder their disapproval, would cheerfully do the man a mischief if they could. I intend to write to thank him, for the resurrection of the very idea of English literature at GCSE level. Yesss!
Or I could begin more calmly: in the beginning were two examinations for (then school-leaving) candidates at 16: GCE for what were considered grammar school children, and CSE for everyone else. The exams themselves presumed different things from candidates. In olden times I taught and examined both. Both English literature exams tested candidates on texts. But they were different – there being an assumption that less literate students could demonstrate their capacity with English lit via texts which were themselves less demanding in language and form. So a GCE candidate might study ‘Pride and Prejudice’, a CSE candidate ‘Jonathan Livingstone Seagull’ (honestly). The questions might be similar because there is a limit to what you can ask about a text – theme, plot and structure, setting and atmosphere, characterisation, style – but the text was deemed either more or less accessible. That’s what made the difference.
That was then. I was there – in the classroom – when the great reform of amalgamating GCE and CSE into GCSE happened. For me it coincided with being head of English in a brand new comprehensive school formed from a grammar school and a secondary modern school. Our top four years in this new 11-16 school sustained the grammar/sec mod divide, which meant I taught both set 1 and set 12 – I kid you not, bizarre though it sounds now. And our intake year was six form entry, every form completely and deliberately mixed ability. It felt as if the powers that be flung down a gauntlet and said “Now get out of that”.
The exam boards catered for the new world by providing differentiated papers – harder texts getting higher grades, the worst example of which was, as I recall, a maths tiered paper where no entrant could score higher than a D, already the emerging grade for ‘not a pass’, not really, because if you had a grade all the way down to G you could claim you had a GCSE, but the working and higher education world wanted a C or nothing – and still does.
In the way of these things, and egalitarian forces being what they are, we appeared to reach a point where a class could study and present for examination, say, ‘Pride and Prejudice’, but A* grades were equally available for candidates studying less literary texts. And if that was possible, why would you bother doing a hard text or even just a long text? If you can get a marathon medal for running a hundred yards, why would you sweat the other 26 miles? Durr!
Enter ‘Of Mice and Men’, which used to be taught to grammar school second formers, aged 12, or for CSE, to 16 year olds not destined for literary careers and sometimes with reading ages of around 12 – again, I know – the biggest shock I got when I trained to lecture in further education was the number of school leavers who came to my classes unable to read. What they or their teachers had been doing for 10 years, I never found out.
‘Of Mice and Men’ is a super book – if you have not already read it, it’ll take you a short evening. If you are anything between 16 and 25, you probably studied it for two years to get your GCSE in English lit. It has been studied by 90 per cent of GCSE Eng lit candidates. But English literature – by definition, being American – it is not. Comparable with ‘Pride and Prejudice’, it is not. And it was one of the dirty little secrets of education, now blown apart by Michael Gove, that you could win an A* in GCSE Eng lit – “Gosh! Wow! Are you going to do a degree in Eng lit?” – on the basis of your mastering what a young friend of mine once called “poxy easy books”.
The flight to simplicity was surely not just a conspiracy of lazy English teachers. There was active collusion from all parties who stood to gain and government pressure to perform.
A couple of years ago, on the eve of the GCSE Eng lit exam, I spent time with half a dozen youngsters at one of the best independent schools just finishing a final revision class – on ‘Of Mice and Men’. I was surprised. They were a top set in a top school. I asked why not a harder text. Blank looks. How dotty is this woman?
“Why,” one asked patiently, “would we study a longer, harder book when we can get the A* for an easier shorter book, when even those of us who love Eng lit, are really aiming for straight A*s across the board? More work for Eng lit would steal time from the other subjects – I hate physics, but I have to get the A*, so that is where my time goes. Any other approach would be stupid.”
Ah. The pursuit of the full hand, the 10 A*s. Or, for less able students, the five grades C or above, including English and maths. Can you make an essential exam quick and easy? Yes, you can. So why wouldn’t we? The exam board gets lots of passes, the customers flock, the kids do not strain, the teachers enjoy life and much success – the hell with Jane Austen.
A young maths teacher in a state comprehensive later confirmed the pupils’ view. I thought it cynical, he thought it practical. “My school risks going into special measures if we do not get the right numbers over the ‘five Cs including English and maths bar” – all of our jobs are at stake. If we thought one of us was teaching a long hard text when a short easy one would get the same result, making kids spend more time on his subject than on ours, or more time when they didn’t need to, and they really need to spend time on maths because it’s hard – I think there’d be a lynching. We work together to meet the government targets.”
“And the hell with Charles Dickens?”
So why should you study hard texts for GCSE English lit? Because you can. Because not to do so produces no differentiation and results for all not worth the paper they are written upon. Because it does us no good to dumb down everything to the lowest possible common denominator. And because Michael Gove says so. Yesss!
Hilary Moriarty is national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association