According to schools minister Nick Gibb, the debate about reformed GCSE English Literature earlier this week was ‘just one more example’ of Labour’s opposition to most changes to education in England since 2010.
But the debate was not opposition for opposition’s sake, as Gibb implied. It was triggered by an ePetition asking for pupils sitting GCSE English Literature to take unannotated texts into the exam. It received nearly 166,000 signatures and qualified for a parliamentary debate.
The reformed GCSE English Literature curriculum narrowed content, stultified pupils’ thinking, stifled creativity and discriminated against special needs pupils, its detractors argued. The exam was more like a ‘memory test’ than one which assesses understanding.
Supporters said the new English Literature exam introduced more rigour and, like all recent exam reforms, would bring public exams ‘on a par’ with qualifications in the best performing countries. If that’s the aim, then it’s destined to fail. Most countries do not have such exams at 16. Real exam reform would have moved England to graduation at 18 not overhaul an already out-of-date system focussed on age 16.
Gibb said the revised Literature curriculum would increase ‘cultural literacy’ ensuring children would share a common bedrock of texts. This would enable them to understand references to Catch 22 and A Christmas Carol: ‘literature contributes much to the underpinning ties that hold us together.’
Gibb’s right – but only up to a point. There are thousands upon thousands of novels – it’s impossible to have read even a fraction of these. And it's unrealistic to expect 16 year-olds to have read all set texts - their teachers choose a selection and don't attempt to force feed the whole lot. This applies to adults too. I admit I haven't read all of Dickens or Austen. And I've not read Catch 22.
The point of literature is not just reading set texts from a supposed literary canon. Literature’s value is less in the ability to spot references than the way it can move us, speak to us, challenge us. And, yes, entertain us. Literature is too often portrayed as medicine, something that’s good for us even when we recoil rather than something that should be enjoyed. That’s not to say pupils shouldn’t tackle difficult texts but rather to be aware that too negative an encounter can deter pupils for life.
It wouldn’t be an education debate, however, without Gibb’s soundbites. The familiar ones were there: ‘1.9 million more pupils’ in good or better schools since 2010 and the good performance of 10-year-olds in the recent international reading test PIRLS being down to ‘phonics reforms’. Not necessarily so, as we’ve pointed out before. It’s too early to say whether recent reforms contributed to the rise in PIRLS results in 2016, a report co-authored by the Department for Education said. Gibb appears not to have read it.
Making robotic statements is a Gibb trait. Unfortunately, it won’t be too long before he repeats them again and again and…