We have a talented set of Year 10 students this year, with some very bright pupils following in Years 8 and 9. It seems that here is the group I can enter early for GCSE English and English literature. The idea fits in with the Government's intention to challenge the high-fliers and accelerate their learning.
If the experiment is successful we might even be in a position in future to bypass GCSE for the academically gifted, and teach them something interesting instead. We can introduce many students who would not choose English literature at AS or A-level to its joys, and possibly recruit some of them or, at least, give the scientists among them a chance to explore something of our heritage. Nothing is more frustrating than watching interested and talented students abandon the subject because of specialisation.
With renewed enthusiasm, I researched the syllabus for AS-level modules and immediately encountered an unexpected but major drawback. The choice of poetry, drama and Shakespeare is wonderful. But then I read the list of titles for the module introducing the modern novel, and my heart sank.
Enduring Love by Ian McEwan is more like an endurance test, and has surely been chosen more for the author's reputation than for the quality of this work. Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson is a wonderful exploration of post-Second World War inter-racial tensions in the United States, but the title describes the pace of the plot.
Can The Bell by Iris Murdoch be meant as an introduction to the modern novel? Ask not for whom it tolls, but it's not for 16-year-olds in this century.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood might be the least bad choice, but that is to damn it with faint praise. Finally, there is Jill Paton Walsh's Knowledge of Angels, a story of the Spanish Inquisition which, as Monty Python almost said, was the last thing I expected.
Many of the Year 11 pupils I want to take through the course will not continue to study English; some are boys whose taste does not include such "literary" novels. The group might have as many as 30 pupils - so I need something entertaining. If we can have Murdoch, why can't we have The Grapes of Wrath, the first novel I read at A-level, grabbing me by the throat and disturbing my view of the world as I had known it? If a dystopia, why not 1984? Why can't we have something with some humour in it, say, some Evelyn Waugh? Or some action? Or at least some characters set in a time, place and society the students can relate to and sympathise with?
I enjoyed reading all the stories individually, but I'm an English teacher. Even then, I was reminded of Dr Johnson, who said that reading Paradise Lost was more of a duty than a pleasure. They all seem to me to be more concerned with style than substance, and I fear that is not what will inspire a mixed group of bright students who might be interested but have their other GCSEs to worry about.
I really cannot see these novels engaging the interest of my students at this stage in this place. I think it might prove a great opportunity lost.
Kevin Fitzsimons Kevin Fitzsimons is head of English at a comprehensive in Hull