Class war over classics

16th February 2007 at 00:00
Staff say they will ignore instruction to teach Dickens and Austen to key stage 3 pupils

TEACHERS ARE fighting a government decree that says they must teach classic authors such as Charles Dickens and Jane Austen to pupils as young as 11.

Staff say they will ignore the diktat, issued last week by the Government's curriculum watchdog as part of its key stage 3 reforms. They said it was misjudged, politically motivated and "will not be taught".

"It is a politically correct statement which does not reflect the reality in the classroom," said Ian Brinton, chair of the English Association's secondary committee. "I would be stunned if any of these writers are taught."

The row over the place of classic writers in the curriculum begun last year, when the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority tried to drop the list of prescribed pre-20th-century authors, which also includes George Eliot and Alexander Pope, only to back down under pressure from Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary.

Mr Johnson said that the classics were "untouchables". Sir Mike Tomlinson, a former schools chief inspector and QCA board member, called the U-turn "very sad".

Now teachers are joining forces to denounce the decision. Ian Brinton, who teaches at Dulwich College, south London, said that the move could put children off the classics for life. Simon Gibbons, chair of the relevant committee at the National Association for the Teaching of English, said:

"It reads like a desert island discs of the Labour Cabinet. The idea you give these huge weighty tomes to key stage 3 pupils is nonsense."

Less than a third of the listed authors were ever taught before Year 9, he said. Austen and Eliot were not among them.

Dr Bethan Marshall, a senior lecturer in education at King's College, London, said: "All that will happen is that teachers will pick a few short stories or excerpts to get round it."

Oli de Botton, an English teacher at Albany school in Enfield, said he would not be teaching Dickens until GCSE. "Even then they hate it," he added.

Missblogs in The TES online staffroom agreed: "Is whoever chose these writers prepared to come and teach them to my bottom set Year 7s?"

Pupils at Highgate Wood school in north London were mystified by the choices. "Not my kind of book," said 11-year-old Noah Aldous of Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Twelve-year-old Wesley Ryan-Ereira wrinkled his nose at Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Kubla Khan: "I don't get it," he said.

The reforms are due to come in from next year but it looks likely that teachers will get round the prescriptions by using excerpts or updated texts, opting instead for more popular modern books such as Louis Sachar's Holes and Robert Swindells's Stone Cold.

The QCA said there was a "broad consensus" on studying classic authors but a "more flexible" curriculum was essential.

A DfES spokesman said that certain authors were vital to a "classic, well-rounded British education".

Leading article, page 26

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