Core worry remains for English at A-level

6th December 1996 at 00:00
Nicholas Pyke is, sadly, incorrect in reporting that the proposed A-level English literature core will require students to study at least three pre-20th-century texts (TES, November 29).

For both AS and A-level, half of the texts studied must have been written before 1900, for Shakespeare is included (quite properly) as a required text.

What would be a real improvement would be for the syllabus to insist on a certain number of 20th-century works, too, so that the study of literature cannot become simply a historical survey.

There are, however, other concerns. Only "the majority" of the eight texts need originally to have been written in English. And the rubric now includes material on "the development of genres, forms and movements", appreciation of the historical context of the works and the cultural and literary influences upon them, and a study of the ways in which the interpretations of texts have changed through time - which means, I suppose, a kind of Shakespeare's Lives for every writer studied. That bete noire of the old O-level literature, the "comparison question", is resurrected, too.

So where, I wonder, will that leave students as they come to grips for the first real time with literary critical analysis and the study of significant English texts in depth? We must not try to cram a university approach (and, as far as genres etc are concerned, almost a research approach) into AAS-level. Not unless we want to dissipate the rigour of the subject at this level and make it bland and feeble.

It will be interesting to see how the key skill of application of number is integrated into the syllabuses. If we know that Shakespeare wrote 37 plays, we could count the number of different stanza forms which Herbert used, and we could analyse in depth Mr Micawber's financial acumen. I find it hard to believe that this kind of folly is what Dearing intended.

We must also be careful to preserve the ability of English examiners to reward intelligent and imaginative comments on texts, even when (especially when?) the ideas expressed by candidates are not merely those thought of by the examiners.

Every English teacher will have found shafts of real insight in candidates' essays that strike new sparks from even the most familiar texts. Marking schemes must not relegate literary commentary to the merely mechanical: examiners must be free to reward good ideas backed up by textual evidence.

The best candidates will often have more exciting ideas than the examiners, and a good examiner will recognise and praise them accordingly. Marking schemes must retain sufficient flexibility to allow this.


Bootham School


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