GCSE: Why we should let all children study literature

The idea that pupils in alternative provision shouldn't study English literature limits aspirations, says Kate Martin

GCSE: Why all pupils should be allowed to study English literature

“Those children can’t do that!”

“They’ll never get a proper grade!”

“They can’t read well enough to do it!”

All responses I have heard in alternative provision schools and pupil-referral units to the question of whether or not English literature is an appropriate qualification for their centres. 


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They are well meaning, I’m sure, but nevertheless they make my blood boil more than blundering Brexit.

My answers (in order) are: 

“Why the hell not?” 

“So what?” and 

“Let them surprise you!” 

Studying English literature is not about grades and it really shouldn’t be framed that way. Literature unlocks the world, allowing an understanding of culture, history, society and politics that might otherwise be closed off. 

It is about people and emotions, unlocking feelings we might never have seen played out or felt ourselves. It allows humans to think deeply, and form an understanding about, issues that might never have been in their consciousness without it. 

And, besides all that, it’s fun.

GCSE English literature expands horizons

Think about this: if a student had never read something like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time perhaps they wouldn’t have considered how other people’s brains process the world. 

If they’d never read An Inspector Calls, would they have really thought about social responsibility, the gender divide or what our country might be like without the welfare state? Aren’t those things vital to really get to grips with the issues we’re facing today? 

And don’t get me started on Macbeth or Julius Caesar. If there was ever a time that we needed to reflect on power corrupting and the manipulation of the masses then, surely, it is now.

If none of that moves you enough, then let’s go back to that first response – the idea that “those” children can’t “do” literature. 

Dangerous delusions

If we set aside the delusion that there is one sort of child who attends alternative provision, then we can look at the simple fact that statements like that are maddening evidence of teachers and senior leaders who are shamefully limiting the potential of their students. 

How dare you suggest that because a child has been excluded they shouldn’t have the highest academic offer?

I teach literature every day, to groups of students who have been excluded from school for myriad reasons. Some can’t yet read fluently (some are studying phonics in key stage 4), and some have severe ADHD and processing issues.

Most have concentration difficulties and behavioural issues, which have prevented successful engagement in mainstream. 

But they all study literature in some form. We use the texts, of course, as well as films, cartoons, graphic adaptations, modern versions of historical texts and, yes, YouTube clips. 

The way we teach depends on the ability, needs and interests of each individual child or group – but they are all studying English literature.

We draw pictures of quotes, we act out sections of the plays, we relate themes and issues in extracts of the texts to relevant situations of the students’ own lives and experiences. 

And I have never looked at these established texts from such new and interesting angles as now, teaching in AP.

Incredible outcomes

Maybe not all students will ultimately sit the exam, and maybe not all students who do sit the exam will get more than a grade 1 or 2.

But that really doesn’t matter because there will be a group of children and young people who can better understand the world around them; who can make sense of the emotions in themselves and others; and who have explored a plethora of cultures, ideas and political thought. 

Maybe most importantly, there will be a group of young people who never have to feel out of their depth when someone talks about books, plays or poetry or makes a literary reference in a different context because they have been there, read it, seen it and have a frame of reference for it.

They will have proved that excluded young people can “do” literature.

I’ll leave you with the moment when one of my Year 10 students, who had never before read an entire book, let alone a Shakespeare play, turned to our principal – a well-educated, degree-qualified adult – in a London theatre.

He said: “Look, it’s because he is being manipulated by her. I think it’s because he is scared of not being a proper man, it’s a bit like Trump in America." 

That, I’m sure you’ll agree, is priceless cultural capital. 

Kate Martin is vice-principal (and English teacher) at Restormel Academy, an alternative provision school in Cornwall. She tweets @k8martin

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