Alternatives from down under
The new national curriculum for English for key stages 3 and 4 is an improvement on what went before. Previously, the texts you could use depended on whether they were written pre-1900. The new date of 1914 has some sense to it. Even better was the removal of the compulsory study of certain authors and their replacement with suggested writers. The old list seemed racist - the authors were all English with a few token Scots and Welsh. Irish writers seemed to be included either because they were viewed as English or because their nationality was deemed not to count. A third possibility, that no other writers in English were thought to matter, is an even worse thought.
The new list for "different cultures and traditions" has to be treated with care. Look at the Australians listed. Henry Handel Richardson is not a suitable choice. Her (yes, her) most highly regarded text is The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, a three-volume tragedy set in 19th-century Australia. I can just see my GCSE students ploughing through all 800-plus pages of that. Or are we meant to use her other main work, the autobiographical novel, The Getting of Wisdom? This is set in a posh female private school in 1880s Melbourne. The setting reveals the problems: it is not a male-friendly novel.
Australian texts more suitable for this section at GCSE include Kenneth Cook's Wake in Fright, which highlights kangaroo shooting, sexism, gambling, alcoholism and corrupt police. Thomas Keneally's The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, with its focus on racism and violence, should also be taught. Both these novels show an Australia which John Pilger would recognise but not the watchers of Neighbours and both texts have been taught for many years in Australia. The poetry of Les Murray is also on the recommended list, but the most taught poet in Australia is Bruce Dawe, whose satire is very accessible. His subjects include football, hanging and war.
An American novelist often taught in Australia is Chaim Potok, especially The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev. Many students love these texts, even though they focus on academic, religious, right-wing male Jews. War, scientific research, baseball, important father-figures all help give these stories strong storylines which help explain their appeal. Read these novels and be amazed at th very different cultures and traditions.
Such texts are enjoyed by all students; too many current texts are female orientated. Traditionally England is viewed as anti-semitic and not thrilled with Americans. Is this why Potok's texts seem not to be taught here?
But which "different cultures and tradition" texts are suitable for key stage 3? The authors suggested are nearly as irrelevant as in the old Order. Australians I would recommend include Paul Jennings, whose comic short stories this age group reads for pleasure. They have been made into a television series called Round the Twist. All students enjoy the humour. A ghost in a Dunny! Being nude in the school play! Eating spaghetti until you throw up! You get the picture - he's not subtle.
Students also appreciate John Marsden's So Much to Tell You, which is the delicate diary of a withdrawn girl who has to learn to co-operate with the world around her. They also enjoy Ruth Park's Playing Beatie Bow for its focus on divorce, Gillian Rubenstein's Space Demons for being the first decent novel based on computer games, Morris Gleitzman's comic and easy to read The Other Facts of Life - what happens when a child is more aware of world issues than its parents?
And in particular I recommend Robin Klein for two novels. People Might Hear You is about weird sects. As a warning about cults it is unrivalled. The heroine is forced to join as her "responsible adult" does, but the heroine can see it is wrong and has to break free. The best of Klein's novels is Came Back to Show You I Could Fly, which is a sensitive story about an 11-year-old loner, Seymour, and his relationship with the beautiful and slightly older Angie, who is on hard drugs. This carefully crafted exploration deserves to be read by all as it provides no easy answers but raises many questions.
The challenge is now up to all teachers of English. No author is set other than boring Bill Shakespeare, so within the constraints of the budget let's start to explore material which is relevant to our students. After all, if students want to read they will achieve more than if they are forced to read. Let's hope exam boards as well will realise the freedom they have. Or will the power of the stock cupboard ensure that the same tired, second-rate, traditional texts win out?
Alastair Gunn is a senior teacher in Hertfordshire. He taught English in Australia for 20 years