Frustrating puzzle of the literary lists

30th March 2007 at 01:00
Consultation on the secondary curriculum review ends on April 30, so there's still time for voices to be heard - especially on the decision to keep lists of prescribed authors, against the initial advice of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the wishes of English teachers.

Lists, an annoying part of all three previous versions of the national curriculum, show a lack of trust in English teachers' judgment.

Few would question the need to spell out the broad range of literary study.

But once you start to name writers, you end up with anomalies. Politicians and advisers' input produces odd choices: John Masefield for KS3; John Bunyan and Robert Herrick for KS4. Are Bunyan and Masefield really a "must"


Lists abound: a new, pernicious split between KS3KS4 authors; "should include" lists; contemporary writers and texts "from different cultures and traditions" where texts "appropriate for study" are offered, rather than a more prescriptive formulation. But who appears on what list is a puzzle.

Kate Chopin (born in the United States and published in 1889) is on the English tradition list for KS3, while Mark Twain (born in the US and published in the 1880s) is a writer from "different cultures and traditions". Jack London (born in the US and first published in 1903) is a contemporary writer. John Steinbeck (surely more contemporary than Jack London, and more important to our "literary tradition" than Kate Chopin, but not "English") is in "different cultures and traditions", as is Arthur Miller.

And so it goes on. Meera Syal, Benjamin Zephaniah and Jamila Gavin are grounded in British culture and write about Britain. So what makes them from "different cultures"? Different from whom? It seems books from "different cultures" should be by "authors who are so familiar with a particular culture or country that they represent it accurately and with understanding". So are we expected to judge Jamila Gavin's depiction of 18th-century London in Coram Boy on this basis? Jackie Kay is British black. Meera Syal is British Asian. They are on different lists, so Ms Syal needs to be accurate about her "culture" while Ms Kay needn't bother.

The QCA's stated aim has been to give greater flexibility and creativity in the programmes of study. It should ask itself whether author lists will be a help or a hindrance in providing a curriculum that stretches pupils and allows them to emerge with a love of literature.

This article is based on the views of staff at the English and Media Centre

Barbara Bleiman is an advisory teacher at the English and Media Centre, London

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