Exam board accused of dumbing down by leaving classic literature out of English A-levels. Warwick Mansell reports.
British teenagers can get a GCSE and A-level in English without having read Charles Dickens, Jane Austen or Charlotte Bront .
The most popular GCSE exam in the subject, taken by nearly 400,000 pupils in England and Wales last year, offers questions on one of eight 20th-century novels, including Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies and The Catcher in the Rye, but none on any 19th-century texts.
The reading list for the AQA exam board was exposed by Julia Parry, deputy head of English at St Martin in the Fields girls' school, in south London, who asked a conference at London's Somerset House: "Why is it that the GCSE list includes no classics?"
Ms Parry added that there is no requirement in AQA's A-level to study a pre-20th century novel.
Anne Fine, the former children's laureate, said: "This is a real sign of dumbing down. Many of the books which are put in front of children nowadays simply do not merit the amount of time which is spent on them."
Several teachers said the real problem was the dominating influence of exams. John Carey, emeritus professor of English at Oxford university, who chaired the conference, said: "To my mind, the 19th century is a great period for the English novel."
And Michael Morpurgo, the current children's laureate, said: "The wider young people read, the better. The list should include 20th-century classics, but also 19th-century novels."
Ms Parry said: "My suspicion is that the exam board thinks 21st century children, especially those from the inner city, are not capable of understanding classic novels these days.
"This is downright patronising. If you withhold great writing from your pupils, you are guilty of social exclusion, of impoverishing them culturally."
She suggested that the AQA reading list could be freshened up with modern favourites, such as Nick Hornby's About a Boy.
Bethan Marshall, of King's college, London university, agreed that AQA's list signified a "slightly patronising" attitude to pupils. Those from all backgrounds should be given a chance to study the classics, she said.
In Wales, pupils studying for the WJEC exam board's GCSE are able to study contemporary novels by Meera Syal and Roddy Doyle, as well as 19th-century classics by Charles Dickens and Charlotte Bront .
But Hugh Lester, subject officer for English GCSE, said that Of Mice and Men was teachers' most popular choice of set text.
"You have to look quite hard to find a school that hasn't studied that novel," he said. "There's a lot in that book that children can identify with.
"Although 20th-century texts may be familiar to teachers, they are new to pupils. There's a lot in there to challenge them."
An AQA source added that schools had been consulted in the past about changing the list, but had resisted it because of the expense of replacing textbooks.
He said: "If you tried to remove Of Mice and Men or Lord of the Flies from the list, there would be blood on the streets. Schools want what they've got in the stock cupboard. Every school has 200 of these books."
An AQA spokeswoman said GCSE pupils did have the chance to study 19th-century novels as coursework. Other A-levels that it offers give pupils the opportunity to study Charles Dickens, Emily Bront and Jane Austen.
She also denied that the board took a patronising attitude. She said: "With around 400,000 pupils taking this exam, we have to cater for the entire ability range."
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AQA's GCSE set-text list
To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
Lord of the Flies - William Golding
A Kestrel for a Knave - Barry Hines
The Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
I'm the King of the Castle - Susan Hill
Green Days by the River - Michael Anthony
Heroes - Robert Cormier