Balancing the books

19th June 2015 at 01:00

It's one of those awkward, questions conveniently ignored by curriculum reformers: now that Of Mice and Men is on its way out as a set text in GCSE English literature, what are secondaries supposed to do with all the books? At my school alone we'll have more than 650 unwanted copies. A rough estimate puts the forthcoming surplus at about 1 million nationally.

The actual figure may well be much higher. Students are usually allocated two editions - one to annotate and a clean one to take into the exam hall. If we add on all those threadbare spare copies kept in desks (used for bailing out the more careless and forgetful), that number could be pushing 1.5 million.

That's an awful lot of mice and men to find a new home for. And there's no point in shipping them to English-speaking schools across the Atlantic and beyond. Stock cupboards the world over are bursting with mice, men, mockingbirds and the like.

Schools certainly can't expect any help from the Department for Education. Like the shopkeeper in the Monty Python parrot sketch, ministers are keen to deny that Steinbeck is dead under the new course requirements. A surprisingly polemical piece on its website, described as a "myth buster", puts forward the rather bold argument that Steinbeck lives on under the new arrangements (bit.lyEnglishLit). It argues that classes will still be perfectly free to read the book at any stage during the course - alongside the Shakespeare, poetry, 19th-century novel and post-1914 work of British fiction.

This seems a little disingenuous. I do not teach English literature but I can't imagine Steinbeck will be top of the recommended further reading list. That's assuming you're teaching students for whom further reading is an option. I'm not sure those who struggle like Lennie in Of Mice and Men would quite have the time.

Schools are clearly on their own when it comes to shifting their Steinbeck mountains. But if they all act separately it could mean a tragically undignified final resting place for a work that has informed and moved millions of young people over the years.

The books may merely go off for recycling, the contents reconstituted to form inferior literature. In an even more depressing scenario, school caretakers could swoop down on the discarded piles. Perhaps we will see copies nailed across various parts of the school infrastructure - pressed into service as a cost-cutting initiative for wall, ceiling and floor repairs.

A more respectful outcome would be for schools to come together and form a coordinated Steinbeck national strategy. For example, by building a vast Of Mice and Men book-sculpture, displayed in a new Myth Buster room at the DfE. Alternatively, those million-plus copies could be fortified and used as bricks in the building of the first Steinbeck Free School, a possible successor to the Steiner schools, with the motto: "The best-laid schemes of mice and men often lead to confusion and chaos."

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire


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