“Do we really need an English Literature exam at all?”

8th November 2013 at 16:13

 Martin Reader, headmaster, Wellington School, Somerset, writes:

“Following Mr Gove’s penchant for historical inspiration for exam change, my instant response was to glimpse rosily back to my first forays into English teaching in 1991. I was a freshish-faced ‘unqualified’ teacher, coming straight from Oxford with two English degrees. A former grammar school boy, I was starting work in an independent boarding school.
How many pariah status symbols can one man pack into a first paragraph?
But oh the joy of those early days in the classroom and what wonderful freedoms: GCSE dual award English and English literature was 100 per cent coursework! In my first two years, I taught Beowulf, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Return of the Native, 1984, Njal’s Saga, Silas Marner, Caucasian Chalk Circle.  Yes, we were allowed to teach literature in translation. We studied poems by Blake, Marvell, Donne, Herbert, Browning, Armitage, Rosen, Duffy, Fanthorpe amongst others.
There was also the radical suggestion that a pupil had to write a critical essay on a novel or a play of their choice! The variety of texts they chose was remarkable, allowing for genuine differentiated learning.
I thought it quite a good diet; though I will not pretend that all my pupils enjoyed every moment. Then again, if a text was not working, I did not have to ‘do it’ to death covering every possible question for an exam. I could complete a task and try something else. And I had the time to teach them how to write.
I then moved to another boarding school where two successive, enlightened heads of department had decided that we were only going to offer English GCSE and not English literature, still with the guiding principle that the best way to teach our beautiful language was through literature. We taught what suited our classes, so I could pick Measure for Measure as an interesting comparison to Romeo and Juliet, the GCSE English text, rather than being confined by the play set by the board.
For nearly a decade, I taught literature without ever having to prepare the pupils for an exam. The result? I hope young people who had experienced a little of the breadth of English literature and a glimpse of writing from other cultures. I know that a few were inspired and I also witnessed a series of outstanding A level students on the back of their experience.
I understand how privileged I was to be in schools which had good resources. This is less the case in maintained schools, although technology makes variety now more accessible. I am not advocating a return to 100 per cent coursework but I do want to resist loudly Gove’s canon.
In many senses, I join the real specialists, the writers and poets who have voiced their dismay at the removal of literature from GCSE English, fearing that many will never sit in awe at the feet of our greatest writers.
I want to join them in heralding the inspirational, transformational power of the arts. Yet in doing so I also want to make the radical suggestion that this change could provide opportunity. Perhaps we should not bother to offer the new exam. Go and teach literature and let it do its work in its own terms.”


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