The Dizzee state of English A-levels

This week, the announcement of a new English language and literature syllabus, from exam board OCR, served as the most damning indictment of ‘relevant’ education yet. Rapper Dizzee Rascal’s one-time appearance on Newsnight, cheeky celebrity addict Russell Brand’s contribution to a government select committee on drugs policy and the tweets of journalist Caitlin Moran are now to be studied alongside the work of Samuel Pepys, William Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson. Even the Department for Education was moved to label the proposals ‘rubbish’ and ‘patronising’.

It’s not quite as dumbed down as it immediately sounds. Brand, Moran and Rascal are not necessarily shoving off more respected literary figures: the A-level in question is the new name for English language, the lesser-regarded cousin of straight English literature. The celebs’ offerings are included as part of a range of set texts designed to test students’ understanding of how language is deployed and transformed in different contexts. Dizzee Rascal and Russell Brand’s offerings have been chosen as examples of two famously slang-heavy individuals speaking outside of their usual linguistic contexts.

It doesn’t take expert critical faculties to see that these examples are hardly the best of what is known and thought in contemporary culture; it’s a run-down of what deeply uncool, corduroy-wearing English teachers think the kids are into these days. Dizzee Rascal was a breath of grimey fresh air when he won the Mercury Prize more than a decade ago, but these days he’s a novelty rapper who performed at the Olympics opening ceremony and works with Robbie Williams. This may be the world’s first A-level dedicated to the study of people who have said slightly surprising things on Newsnight.

This is the real problem with this new A-level. There’s nothing really wrong with teachers, informally, using popular examples to introduce students to more complicated themes around, say, the use of patois or to demonstrate how rhetorical devices appear in unconventional settings. Yet, chances are, schoolkids already understand the devices used by Moran, Brand and Rascal: they’re already established, successful individuals who appeal to the most middle-of-the-road audiences.

This is education at its most depressingly unambitious: not aiming to equip pupils with the skills to tackle things which are new, unfamiliar and challenging, but instead aiming to test them on what they probably already know. It’s little wonder that the majority of today’s young minds still prefer to opt for straight-up English literature, where they can hope to learn something that’s not ‘as seen on TV’.

David Bowden is a columnist for spiked.

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