What should happen to A-level English? Despite recent heated debates on English SATs, the National Literacy Strategy and the teaching of reading, the upper reaches of the curriculum have attracted relatively little attention. The world has changed, but A-level English has yet to catch up.
Full-time education to age 18 is fast becoming the norm in Britain, and the English A-level subjects - language, literature, media and drama - attract more candidates each year. Surely a coherent study in communication and culture should now be an entitlement for young people, whether or not they attend university?
Communications and commerce increasingly flow across the borders of the nation-state, and the "texts" which 21st-century citizens have to deal with include not only their own literary heritage, but also the culture and media of the wider world.
As a recent NATE survey has shown, many teachers and students feel that A-level English fails to offer a coherent curriculum in language and culture.
The original "subject" of English literature (despite minor changes in Curriculum 2000) offers little more than the reading of a handful of unrelated literary works. The new subject of English language (actually more than 20 years old) offers students a wide understanding of language in use, but has no interconnecting door with literature.
Moreover, provision in schools and colleges depends largely on the resources of the individual institution. Many of those studying A-level English in schools find only one subject - English literature - available to them. In larger schools and colleges there may be a choice between contrasting English A-levels, literature and language - but there will be no sense of coherence, connection or commonality.
The solution, then, is an integrated course (possibly a development of the combined courses in English language and literature already available), which could be structured with options to ensure richness and variety. Such a course would recognise the philosophical developments in literature study of the past three decades; it would offer awareness of and practice in the use of language in society; and it would incorporate insights into the nature of literacy that have emerged recently from colleagues in Australia and elsewhere.
Mentioning "literacy" in the context of A-level English risks accusations of utilitarianism and dumbing down. But literacy (in the sense of a limited and instrumental decoding practice) is not the same as literacies: textual competencies and understandings that include literature, media and the wider culture.
It is looking forward rather than backward to note that FR Leavis (arguably the most influential teacher of English literature, and originator of media education in Britain) urged that all need to "come to fairly close terms... with other fields of special study, other trained approaches, than the literary".
Those studying English today include the teachers of tomorrow. Is it not time that this integrated vision was brought into being?
John Hodgson is chair of the post-16 committee of the National Association for the Teaching of English
* Text: Message - the Future of A Level English is available from NATE for pound;7.99 including postage
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