Why kids should study literature

Underlying the debate about the proposed English GCSE curriculum is a failure to make the case for studying classic texts.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

Topics Politics

‘The decline of literature indicates the decline of a nation’, wrote the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Some 200 years later and a host of present-day poets, professors and children’s authors have written about the threat posed to the teaching of English literature in British schools as a result of the Department for Education’s announcement last week of the long-awaited plans for changing the GCSE curriculum for English. The signatories to a letter in The Sunday Times argue that the proposed changes will lead to a decline in the teaching of literature to schoolchildren, which will have an impact on the take-up of the subject, post-16.

Michael Gove’s time as education secretary has been marked by his attempts to bring about reform to GCSEs, the exams sat by school pupils aged 16. Various proposals have been mooted, criticised by commentators and teaching unions, dropped, and then reworked. Gove’s laudable ambition is to restore confidence in an exam for which results improved every year between 1988 (the year GCSEs were introduced) and 2012. This continuous improvement comes despite young adults in England scoring some of the lowest results in the industrialised world in literacy and numeracy tests. The fall in numbers achieving top GCSE grades in 2013 was largely blamed on schools entering record numbers of pupils to sit exams a full year early in an attempt to maximise their chances of league-table success. Gove has tried to replace assessment through end-of-module tests and coursework with an increased emphasis on more rigorous end-of-course exams covering greater content, and for this he has been roundly criticised.

Last week’s announcement therefore represents a considerable watering down of Gove’s initial plans for GCSE reform. By 2017, new exams will have been introduced in only two subjects: maths and, more controversially, English. In both subjects, the traditional grades A to F will be replaced with a numerical ranking of 1 to 9. The top mark of 9 will be benchmarked against standards achieved by pupils gaining high grades in similar subjects in competitor countries such as Australia and Singapore. In order for these international comparisons to be meaningful there is an expectation that the exams will need to be much more challenging than those presently undertaken. For English language this means, among other changes, reduced emphasis on speaking and listening and more marks awarded for spelling, punctuation and grammar. For English literature, pupils will be expected to read whole texts rather than extracts and cover a wider range of literary periods.

Particular attention – and alarm – has been focused upon the proposed changes to English literature. It is assumed by the signatories to the letter in The Sunday Times that a more demanding literature course which, importantly, is not part of the core national curriculum, will become less attractive to league-table conscious schools who will advise less-able pupils against taking the subject. The concern is that literature will become just one choice among many competing options for 14-year-olds choosing which GCSEs to take and a choice which is only offered to more academically gifted pupils. Campaigners hope that their demand for the study of English literature to be compulsory up to the age of 16 will save the subject for future generations.

The academics and poets highlight an important point: that children aged 14 should be allowed, perhaps even encouraged, to drop all study of literature is indeed tragic. Currently, many pupils take a dual-award course which leads to two GCSEs in English language and literature although it is taught through the same lessons: the study of literature provides the material for teaching language. The new English language GCSE is set to become increasingly instrumental in its focus on literacy skills and the literature component will consequently be diluted. While rigorous teaching of spelling, punctuation and grammar is obviously important, ideally we might hope that children had mastered these basic skills before starting their GCSE courses. Drawing a more marked distinction between the two subjects will make it less likely that those taking language-only GCSEs will get to experience the pleasure of reading novels, plays or poetry.

The study of English literature as a separate GCSE, independent of English language, has never been compulsory. This year over a quarter of a million fewer pupils took literature GCSE than language. Demands to make literature compulsory now speak to a cynicism that schools and teachers will play the system and choose the easiest route to league-table success, however detrimental that is to children’s education. Such demands also locate a crisis in English literature in the technical forms and structures of curricular and exams. The suggestion is that technical changes – such as forcing pupils to study literature – can then rescue the subject from crisis.

English literature is, if not a subject in crisis, then certainly one suffering a great deal of angst. The number of pupils taking GCSE English literature has fallen by over 100,000 since 2006. If those who are concerned about the teaching of literature do not look at the underlying causes of this problem, but seek only blunt quick-fix solutions, then the pervading sense of anxiety surrounding the subject will only continue to grow.

The problems with English literature as a subject are deeply rooted and concern the nature of disciplinary knowledge. More so than with any other subject, the challenge to the cultural concept and authority of the canon, a body of work that has stood the test of time and been passed from one generation to the next on the basis of the public’s judgement as to its merit, is acutely felt. If teachers of English lack the confidence to assert that some works of literature are more worthy of study than others, then they call into question the fundamental premise of the subject. The notion of poetry as ‘the best words in the best order’ becomes pointless if teachers cannot discern what they mean by ‘best’ or even defend the notion that a ‘best’ may be possible.

Without a canon of literature to draw upon, the role of the English teacher is no longer to unashamedly promote a love of particular works for the quality of the writing, the beauty of the language, the depths of emotion and range of human experience explored. In the context of literature classes, the canon has been replaced by a tyranny of relevance. Literature is not chosen for its merit but for its coverage of issues that supposedly connect with young people and help them to solve their problems and promote emotional literacy and wellbeing. Instead of taking young people beyond their everyday experiences literature is all too often taught to confine pupils to their existing emotional terrain. Literature becomes all about them.

As such, literature is just one of many subjects that pupils will experience as being all about them. It is then difficult to justify why the study of literature should be undertaken at all, never mind made compulsory.

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. She is chairing the free spiked drinks debate ‘Academic Freedom in Illiberal Times’ in Westminster on Monday 11 November. Reserve a place here. She is also a lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent and the author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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