Canterbury Tales takes a tumble

17th May 1996 at 01:00
Peter Dean mourns the passing of the last A-level with compulsory Chaucer. A small earthquake, imperceptible to all but the closest educational seismographers, took place last summer. It was the last 06522 A-level English Literature paper (Chaucer and Shakespeare) set by the Associated Examining Board - the only A-level English Literature paper devoted exclusively to these two key authors, and the only one therefore requiring candidates sitting it to have studied both.

Other papers and other boards have their obligatory Shakespeare texts, but Geoffrey Chaucer, arguably the second-greateststar in the firmament of English literature, is merely one option among several "major authors" or "poetry section" items.

The loss of 06522 means that Shakespeare alone is now preserved as obligatory across the various syllabuses for A-level English Literature. It also means that Chaucer, from some vestigial retention of parity with Shakespeare (albeit with just one examination board), has now been relegated to the status of an also-ran.

With the syllabuses now on offer, it's possible to get by in A-level English Literature having read just one Shakespeare play and nothing, or next-to-nothing, ofShakespeare's poetry, depending on your (or, more accurately, your teachers') predilections. You could get to university - perhaps even to read English Literature - on the strength of having studied only one Shakespeare play. No doubt it has been done.

Staggering though this appears, perhaps there is no great harm in it. After all, English Literature is itself just one A-level option among many, and one would not want to be associated with a backwoods regard for the "permanent greats".

But the demotions of Chaucer and, subtly, of Shakespeare himself merit reflection. Shakespeare loses status because, obligatory though he is, there is now no single paper anywhere requiring the study of more than one of his texts. Chaucer, as a mere option, has an even chance of falling out of sight completely.

Perhaps I exaggerate. It might be argued that the AEB Chaucer-Shakespeare 06522 was an anachronism. It is certainly true that market forces have brought about its demise. The numbers electing for the ShakespeareChaucer option have declined in recent years. Ultimately, the AEB, being in a competitive market, has decided to join its fellow examinations boards in making Chaucer optional and by reducing (by half) the obligatory weighting of Shakespeare.

I find that a matter for regret. I think it represents more than a simple capitulation or concession to market forces. It is a diminution in the overall choice, variety and quality of British education - and, of course, a subtle redrafting of the English Literature canon.

Peter Dean is an A-level English examiner and education consultant who was formerly a teacher trainer.

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