Talkback

26th January 2001 at 00:00
Frankenstein is lying in a large sealed box in my classroom. It's all I can do to stop myself from tearing him into little pieces. All 25 copies of him. What was one of my favourite books has regressed into my own literary monster, a wicked wretch who haunts my schemes of work and pickles my lesson plans. Frank and I are stuck with each other. But, this time, the miserable partnership of persecutor and persecuted isn't the result of a mad scientist's thirst for knowledge. No. This time it's yet another thunderbolt from the Dfee.

It started when I tried to be a little more adventurous in my choice of GCSE English texts. This year, I'm teaching the pre-1900 prosepost-1900 poetry combination. I have usually taught pre-1900 poetry and post-1900 prose. But there's only so much Blake you can take. Besides, I was sure I could find a stimulating pre-1900 novel that would fire my students' imaginations.

I have to think carefully when I select coursework texts. I teach "repeat" GCSE, which means I have only nine months to ensure that my students get together all the required essay skills for their exams, plus a top-grade coursework folder. So a weighty tome is probably not the best option. Most of the favourites texts were already taught to my repeaters in secondary school. They are understandably reluctant to plough through Great Expectations a second time. Then there's the disgruntled minority who think English is boring and are only in your lessons because they need their C grade. So you try to select a text that has both academic worth and broad appeal. It's not easy.

What about gothic horror? Good old Stoker, Shelley, and Poe? They have lots of action, blood and guts for my predominantly male students, and some feisty females for our two girls. There would be lots of opportunities for role-playing, writing in various formats such as diaries and letters, and really engaging with the text. Not to mention my own love of the genre.

So I decided to teachDracula - only to discover a bureaucratic, leaden-footed monster lurking in the shadows of my syllabus. It was called The English Order, and it put 2,000 volts through my plans for Dracula. The Order is a Government-approved list of poets and novelists. The prose list contains the usual servings of Bront and Dickens, plus a goodly dollop of Trollope, and is prescriptive in the extreme. Bizarrely, Mary Shelley is "approved", but Stoker is not. I see. So, a complex novel about a man making a monster out of human body parts is okay, but Stoker's vampires are not?

Who makes these monstrous judgments? Who decides what is on or off the list? I called the exam board, and spoke to an administrator who agreed that the English Order was ridiculous. She pointed out that the idea of approved texts came from the Government, not the exam boards. It seems the real monsters are the heavy-handed, leaden-footed politicians stalking the gothic corridors of Westminster, who dictate what teachers teach.

I can see them all now, in some Westminster chamber of horror, planning next year's approved list: "Is Drac back this year, David?" "No, sorry Chris - Frank is in for 2001."

It is not that I dislike Frankenstein, but the trouble is that it has a complex plot and a considerable amount of archaic vocabulary. To me, it is not the obvious choice for a GCSE repeater set. Ironically, the exam boards agree - Frankenstein is a set AS text on several literature syllabuses this year. Dracula was the better choice, but the English Order drove a stake through his heart. Politicians tell us what targets we need, what evidence to provide, what hoop to jump through. But telling English teachers what books are and are not approved is the final straw. Next, the politicians will make a list of "morally approved" books as well. I suppose it's time to open the sealed box, wait for the thunderbolt, and watch the sparks fly.

Cassandra Hilland teaches at Farnham college, Surrey


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