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The books that I wish were on the GCSE syllabus

The current list of books for GCSE English reads like a 'greatest hits' – let's mix it up, says one head of English

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The current list of books for GCSE English reads like a 'greatest hits' – let's mix it up, says one head of English

The new GCSE English curriculum has had it critics, but with any English curriculum you will find the choice of books contentious.

Like some kind of education Goldilocks, we can easily criticise any choices made. This book is too hard and this one is too easy. This book is just right.

A colleague and I feel that the current list of books is too predictable. And, dare we say it, it feels like someone Googled the top 10 greatest pieces of English literature.

So, with that in mind, here are some alternatives for the exam boards.

  1. Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice is on the AQA GCSE spec and it does have all the ingredients that students enjoy, but it isn’t a book for teenagers. Most readers are Lydia Bennett, not Elizabeth or Jane, so why not give them Northanger Abbey instead? There’s enough residual enthusiasm for Twilight and its ilk to make the Gothic element appealing. There’s also a cast of characters who range from dreadful to annoying: shallow Isabella Thorpe and her awful boasting brother top the list. Innocent Catherine learns a few hard lessons but "begins perfect happiness" at the end.

2. Far from the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy is the boxset binge of his day. His stories are immensely plot-driven. Something we need to remember when enthusing students to read. Bathsheba, a strong female protagonist, makes some bad choices in life and we see the consequences of those choices in a rural backdrop. Her development reflects some of the difficult choices that teenagers face, or are soon to face – minus the sheep and cliffs, of course.

3. The Virgin and the Gypsy – D.H. Lawrence

The Virgin and the Gypsy sounds like a 1920s version of Take A Break. The vicar’s wife has run off. Granny has a "cunning heart" and makes herself belch after meals. All Yvette wants is "a really jolly social life" but her latent sexuality and family struggles make her a compelling protagonist. D. H. Lawrence seems to have fallen out of favour recently but teenagers would enjoy the descriptions of the family conflicts and the drama of the flood at the end of the book.

4. Goodbye to Berlin – Christopher Isherwood

If we’re talking about context, then Berlin society in the 1930s must come high up the interest scale. It’s bleak but fascinating nonetheless. Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood gives the reader history, politics and sleaze. For good measure, there’s a strongly drawn, albeit flaky heroine and a young man thinking about his sexuality. And while teachers wouldn’t want to go the full Alan Hollinghurst for GCSE, isn’t it about time we had something to read by a gay man writing about being gay?

5. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

There are a lot of voices missing from the curriculum, and, given we live in a multicultural society, more thought is needed when looking at the curriculum. To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t address those missing voices, but it resonates today in our time of fake news and relentless xenophobia. Through Scout’s eyes, we see how the world behaves in the way it does and how we have a duty to do the right thing and how situations aren’t always as clear-cut as they seem to be.

A novel is never just simply a novel and Jane Austen spoke the truth when she described it as "work in which … the most thorough knowledge of human nature … are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language”.

GCSE should be the window into the world of literature. At the moment, it reads like a greatest hits compilation rather than the fuse to ignite a passion for a far greater world of meaning, understanding, thought and ideas.  

Chris Curtis is head of English at a school in Derbyshire. He blogs at Learning From My Mistakes and you can find him on Twitter @Xris32

Fiona Folan is a former head of department and school leader

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