The strange case of the omnipresent GCSE texts

6th February 2015 at 00:00
Jekyll and Hyde could be the new Of Mice and Men, expert says

Ministers' hopes that new English literature GCSEs will lead to a wider range of works being studied in schools are about to be dashed, experts predict.

Former education secretary Michael Gove famously voiced his displeasure about the numbers of children studying one novel: John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. But the National Association for the Teaching of English (Nate) believes the reformed qualifications will lead to another work becoming just as ubiquitous.

According to Nate director Paul Clayton, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson is likely to be the overwhelming star of the new regime. "Different generations have left school all having done Of Mice and Men," he said. "I think Jekyll and Hyde will be that text in the future."

There are solid reasons behind Nate's prediction. All four exam boards offering the new English literature GCSE have included the 1886 tale of a man with a fearsome alter ego on their list of 19th-century novels that teachers must select from. Two other classics feature on all the boards' lists: Charlotte Brnte's Jane Eyre and Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. But Mr Clayton believes the subject matter of those books will put them at a disadvantage.

"You can't necessarily see Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice working as well with a group of disengaged lads," he said. "Girls seem to be able to respond to texts with male protagonists. It doesn't always work the other way round."

For under-pressure GCSE classes, Stevenson's work - like Of Mice and Men - also has the advantage of being a novella rather than a full-length novel.

But it is the themes within its pages that Mr Clayton thinks will most excite teachers. "Some have seen it almost as a representation of moving from being a teenager into adulthood, and that whole conflict between slightly more reasonable behaviour and succumbing to darker impulses," he said. "It's got it all: the Gothic elements, the dark Victorian streets."

The book is not, in fact, a direct replacement for the 1930s Steinbeck classic, which was listed under modern literature rather than 19th-century novels before it was dropped.

Under the new GCSEs, being introduced from September, schools will also have to select one modern text from lists of post-1914 British novels and plays. Two works are offered by all four boards: Meera Syal's 1997 semi-autobiographical novel Anita and Me, and J B Priestley play An Inspector Calls.

Mr Clayton identified the latter as another natural winner. "It has always been there and I think schools will have lots of resources to teach it," he said.

The Nate director said it was inevitable that particular texts would emerge from the pack to become used in most schools. "It has always happened," he added. "There are cost implications: you buy a set of books and they have to do you for three or four years, so you are going to keep using them."

John Yandell, who heads the English secondary PGCE team at the UCL Institute of Education, criticised exam boards' choice of texts for being "disappointingly limited".

"Boards are in competition with one another, and in a time of austerity what they are doing to a significant extent is looking at what most English departments will already have in their stock cupboards. There is a kind of unadventurousness, because boards want market share."

But Mr Clayton believes that teachers' passion for certain texts is another factor. "The reason why Of Mice and Men worked so well was that it is a great story and there is a lot to it," he said. "There are attitudes towards women, issues of race, friendship and tough moral decisions.

"It's a book that really does set a classroom alight if it is taught well. What happens then, of course, is publishers start producing materials to support the teaching of it and teachers will put their schemes of work on the internet, so it gathers momentum. I think that is what is going to happen with Jekyll and Hyde."

A Department for Education spokesman said that the reforms would result in pupils studying a "broader and more demanding range of literature than ever before" and that schools were free to choose from a range of set texts.

Elementary choices

For the new English literature GCSE in England, pupils must study one of the following 19th-century novels (as well as post-1914 British works and a Shakespeare play):


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