Why is it that some plays and books get chosenfor exam syllabuses but not others? Timothy Ramsden finds out how the decisions are made
Where do set book lists come from? If titles appear to be prescribed from on high, their selection is in fact a complex process. Panels of examiners, other practising teachers and representatives of further and higher education and industry are involved in the selection, and suggestions from individual teachers are also considered by examination boards.
To begin with, they are looking for works that satisfy government requirements, currently expressed through the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). These demand, at GCSE and more deeply for A-level, works that allow detailed critical responses which explore language, structure and meaning. Shakespeare, prose, poetry and (other) drama have to be studied, pre- and post-1900 (and for A-level pre-1770) in relation to social, historical and cultural influences, with an awareness of varying reader responses. But never mind the candidates, are the writers up to it?
Some very basic considerations lie behind choices made by the boards. Such as money, and what is likely to be in departmental stockrooms. Variations in delegated budgets under local management of schools and in individual centres' student numbers bring about huge disparities in book-buying power.
Then there's the need for variety, to provide a good gender and ethnic mix and works that will suit varied social catchment areas. Edexcel (formed from the old London and East Anglian Boards) offers English literature from around the world, including Jung Chang's Wild Swans and Toni Morrison's Jazz. There are practical considerations with the Associated Examining Board's (AEB) theatre studies A-level, which encourages workshop productions of set works. Ian Williams of Tyneside's Longbenton School has just four students in one year and needs small cast plays. He also has to look for scripts his students can cope with in performance. The malefemale mix of casts can also influence choice.
For Sally Harris, whose drama work at Kingswood School in Corby, Northamptonshire, is built on physical theatre, Timberlake Wertenbaker's play Our Country's Good (based on Thomas Keneally's novel The Playmaker about an 18th century convict production of George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer) gives a lot of scope and insight into theatre. Explanatory scene titles in Wertenbaker's play relate to similar devices in Brecht, which is being studied alongside it. There are also links, she finds, with The Tempest which many of her students are doing for A-level English, and Wertenbaker's themes relate to young people, not by being about teenagers but because "Love scenes develop out of brutality. As the convicts get hold of a script it lifts them. It shows theatre is liberating."
Examination boards are aware teachers need to love the works they are teaching if the syllabus is to provide a good education as well as a final qualification. And teachers are clearly creative in the way they use the set lists. Liz Kohn is head of English at Leighton Buzzard's Vandyke Upper School in Bedfordshire. Her department has started with Brian Friel's Translations about the English remapping of l9th century Ireland with Anglicized place names - a subject making the play doubly valuable for the many students doing both A-level English literature and language. It makes an Irish component with James Joyce's Dubliners, Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock and Seamus Heaney's poetry, each enriching study of the others (and good for QCA's comparison requirement).
She mentions too Arthur Miller's classic Death of a Salesman and Margaret Atwood's futuristic novel about gender roles, The Handmaid's Tale, as successful with her students. "They identified well with parent-child relationships in Salesman." With Atwood's novel of a furture American society that represses women, exploiting some as reproductive "handmaids", "students identify with the narrator, Offred. Her ignorance is shared by the reader. Then, halfway through, or in revision, they see the overall nightday structure." Complexity, formal structures, the mix of past and present and the ability to repay repeated study are respected by A-level literature students.
That is taken into consideration when decisions are made about the length of time a text stays in the lists (and whether it might reappear after some years' absence, when the balance of texts makes it appropriate). As is any work's ability to throw up varied examination questions. In the case of NEAB (Northern Examination and Assessment Board) French for example, a work such as Marcel Pagnol's La Gloire de mon p re could last three to four years, while a Simenon novel survived only one. Modern languages syllabuses also need to balance length and complexity of language; the greater the linguistic demands the shorter the length that's likely to be acceptable (NEAB modern languages have found poetry the least popular among their set texts). Accessibility of ideas, care not to offend religious groups in particular and the suitability of characters for critical study are qualities shared by foreign language and English literature lists.
Titles suggested for NEAB modern language lists will be read by at least 10 examiners over a year. Texts have been rejected recently for being too fragmented for the average candidate, too slow-moving and lacking in plot, having too difficult a style for average A-level candidates and for being either too raw and brutal or, at the other extreme, too sophisticated.
The Welsh Joint Education Committee (WJEC) has a different language consideration, always including a minority of Anglo-Welsh texts on its English syllabus lists. Not just the Thomases - Dylan and R S - but 17th century poetry by Herbert and Vaughan, Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea and Gillian Clarke as one of three poets selected from the Oxford University Press anthology Six Women Poets. There are also less well-known Welsh works, such as Emyr Humphreys's 1950s novel A Toy Epic. In 1999 Robert Minhinnick's travel book Watching the Fire Eater joins the list.
Both NEAB and now the Southern Examining Group (SEG) publish anthologies of work for GCSE. There is no charge for schools, and this frees money to buy other texts - and by ensuring they meet key stage 4 requirements they take a burden from schools. But will independence of taste be threatened? Such anthologies may usefully cement the relation of board to examination centres but will they also solidify a limited Eng Lit canon, with such SEG choices as Browning's "My Last Duchess" and Burns's "To a Mouse" joining stockroom favourites like Animal Farm and Of Mice and Men? SEG runs a course allowing schools and colleges to choose their own texts. Covering some 62,000 candidates in more than 600 examination centres, the response is topped by Macbeth, studied in 585 centres, followed by Of Mice and Men (415) and An Inspector Calls (383). Lord of the Flies, Romeo and Juliet and To Kill A Mockingbird follow, with Great Expectations and Kes used in about 100 centres each and Cider With Rosie clocking up 50. Among its A-level Shakespeares, Edexcel has found Measure for Measure outstripping As You Like It, Richard II and King Lear in popularity.
Boards monitor a text's success in terms of the quality of answers it provokes from students. Each year every marker of exam papers submits a report on this, and on other aspects of the answers, which is fed back to centres through chief examiners' summations. But there remain dissatisfactions. Mary-Anne Clark, head of English at the Sutton Centre in Nottinghamshire feels Kes, the Sixties story of a Yorkshire boy and his kestrel, is past its sell-by date, and is puzzled that of all the fine Caryl Churchill plays, the AEB should select Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, about puritan groups in the English Civil War and "just about incomprehensible on the page".
At Toot Hill school in Bingham, Nottinghamshire, head of English Mark Guest looks for new works which have "not got a lot of critical baggage, so students do not have to bow down to critics". Ian McEwan's The Child in Time led him to enlist the physics department to explain quantum physics as a help with the novel's time shifts, a cross-curricular experience his students found fascinating.
There is one very basic requirement for a set book - that teachers should be able to obtain copies. Publisher Michael Earley, responsible for the Methuen theatre list, is ready to prepare a student edition of plays set for examination, often with introduction, notes and production photos (though these risk rooting one, soon dated, production in students' minds). As with Heinemann, also geared for the examinations market, a new edition can be out within a year - important when the main boost to sales comes with initial school purchases.
Effects on sales are noticeable - it may be a matter of hundreds, as with Robert Holman's briefly listed play Across Oka, or several thousand as with Charlotte Keatley's Mv Mother Said I Never Should, a popular AEB A-level theatre studies choice with its cast of four women and complex time shifts plus occasional moves from realism.
Faber too are planning student editions to appear from 1999, says newly appointed academic sales marketing manager Sally Green. Among the 44 titles they publish which are set books, the high sellers include Lord of the Flies, Ted Hughes's The Iron Man, Sylvia Plath's poems and Stoppard's Arcadia.
The Stoppard was a play Mary-Anne Clark thought unsuitable for a school with a working-class catchment. "It's too rarified. Students would not have the background. Some texts assume young people have books at home." She adds, "If we could be guaranteed a production they could see, I might think about it."
Reading for exams is one thing; plays need to be experienced.