Break out of the straitjacket

20th September 1996 at 01:00
The curriculum may not be as restrictive as you think. Emphasis on texts from diverse cultures should be a liberating invitation to explore new authors, says Geoff Barton.

Perhaps Rhodes Boyson is getting to us after all. We like to think we're immune to the annual rubbishing of examination results. Then we switch on the mid-August news. Bong! Some politicians aren't in Tuscany. Bong! The ex-Education Minister and some other quote-for-hire public servants are still with us. Bong! They dutifully stick their heads through the hatch and cuckoo notes of doom. Bong! And now for tonight's real news . . .

As a head of English for the past six years, I've been on the merry-go-round of curriculum change and felt the frustration of media attacks on the work we do in the classroom. I suspect that what keeps us going is the belief that our job continues to matter.

This observation may not be based upon the most scientific research, but during my time in York I've had three hairdressers. Each has told me that it's their English teacher they remember most and the English lessons they liked best. Why? Because they never knew quite what to expect next. It's a small but reassuring reminder of the difference creative teachers can make.

I am also involved in a variety of educational publishing projects. English teachers are a fickle audience for publishers, priding themselves on a "Me? I never use a coursebook" mentality. That, in fact, is part of the enjoyment - putting together textbooks that translate the statutory requirements of the imposed curriculum into lively and accessible classroom resources. Remembering, in other words, that English teachers are frequently mavericks, with their own repertoire of guaranteed hits, favourite texts and pet approaches.

But now, I suspect, we're losing our nerve. The evidence?

Judging moods is a precarious business, as dubious as that other television news cliche. Disaster strikes some remote global outpost, and the anchorman swivels earnestly towards a monitor. "So tell me, Nick, what's the mood in Tibet tonight?" Nick doesn't hesitate in summing up the feelings of a few million people.

Less ambitiously, publishers receive regular feedback reports from their representatives in schools. Reps have the challenging brief of cornering teachers for a coffee-gulping three minutes to persuade them to buy some books - preferably in class sets.

At present their recurring message is that English teachers are keeping their heads down. Wayward tendencies are being stunted by waves of curricular change and a dark utilitarianism is setting in.

"What have you got for pre-20th century literature?" we'll say. "Where are the prescribed authors, the texts from the Caribbean or Africa? These are extracts. Our board says we have to study complete texts only. And where's any mention of the writer's social and historical context?" There's a bleakness in all this. Of course, I would say that, having written books in response to the creative possibilities of the new curriculum.

But while it's understandable that teachers are looking to buy the texts that best fulfil specific needs, I think we can also detect the rhythmic clicks of jerking knees. Increased emphasis on pre-1900 texts doesn't mean that we have to abandon contemporary authors whom we know work well. Reference to whole texts isn't a decree that extracts are taboo. Emphasis on texts from diverse cultures should be a liberating invitation to explore new authors and their cultures, not to dust off tokenistic old chestnuts.

Instinct tells us, for example, that one of the best ways to give our students the feel for the language and literary conventions of a period is to immerse them in texts of the time. A reading list of Bleak House, Middlemarch and Jude the Obscure isn't likely to inspire students to develop their acquaintance with the voices of the past. But a taste of key moments from Victorian novels, or encounters with famous characters, done through extracts, might.

Seeking reassurance that I'm right to interpret the English Order in this way, I asked Sue Horner, professional officer for English at the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. How does she feel about the use of extracts, for example?

"Extracts have a role in introducing students to literature," she said. "Used well, they can give students confidence in approaching a full novel."

"So we don't have to be reading whole texts all the time then?" I ask.

"The English Order says that the emphasis should be on the interest and pleasure of reading in the English literary heritage. While we don't want a diet of extracts, they can help teach important points."

"What about texts from diverse cultures? Some teachers seem to be assuming that these can only be African or Caribbean texts."

"Diverse cultures doesn't have to mean distant cultures," she said. "Studying Of Mice and Men is likely to be a significant exploration of another culture. Students should be exploring a variety of cultures and traditions, including texts from other parts of Europe. It's a counterpoint to the English literary heritage."

There's a need for us to regain our confidence about this. Many of us became English teachers because we were inspired by a figure in our past, some especially gifted individual for whom the job of English teacher was full of endless possibilities and challenges. My own role-model was legendary for teaching about the Spanish Armada by setting the school biology pond ablaze. You can be sure that these were people we admired not for their record-keeping or their genius for ticking boxes of prescribed authors.

That tradition of individualism can continue to thrive with the new curriculum. It means remembering that while the English Order may be the significant map of students' learning, it isn't the full itinerary, complete with allocated toilet stops. We are the experts. It's up to us to respond creatively, balancing the best of modern writers with the big names of our heritage, exploring a variety of cultures, using extracts and whole texts judiciously to widen our students' understanding of literature. Perhaps we should leave the last word to Brian Cox, in his Collected Poems, Carcanet, 1993: English Teacher Petite, white-haired Miss Cartwright Knew Shakespeare off by heart, Or so we pupils thought.

Once in the stalls at the Old Vic She prompted Lear when he forgot his part.

Ignorant of Scrutiny and Leavis, She taught Romantic poetry, Dreamt of gossip with dead poets.

To an amazed sixth form once said: "How good to spend a night with Shelley. "

In long war years she fed us plays, Sophocles to Shaw's St Joan.

Her reading nights we named our Courting Club, Yet always through the blacked-out streets One boy left the girls and saw her home.

When she closed her eyes and chanted Ode to a Nightingale We laughed yet honoured her devotion.

We knew the man she should have married Was killed at Passchendaele.

Geoff Barton is head of English at Huntingdon School, York

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