Teachers fail to shake off Sherlock

11th August 2006 at 01:00
Johnson ignores staff pleas for freedom to choose texts and forces teens to read classic authors. William Stewart reports

A prescribed list of classic authors including Trollope, Dickens and Austen will remain in the curriculum for 11-14 year olds, Alan Johnson, insisted this week, provoking a backlash from his own advisers.

The Education Secretary over-ruled senior figures in the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and teachers' representatives by pre-empting the result of an ongoing consultation.

He stepped in to preserve the list of pre-1914 authors, amid claims that he was showing a lack of trust in teachers. But he said nothing about a list of pre-1914 poets - including Keats, Milton and Wordsworth - which is still due to disappear.

"The curriculum should list classic writers to support the teaching of English in secondary schools," Mr Johnson said.

"Authors such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy are a crucial part of our national heritage. We must encourage children to read English classics which have stood the test of time and for which there should always be time to test."

The QCA had not prescribed any writers except Shakespeare in its new draft KS3 English curriculum, saying simply that literature studied should include "stories, poetry and drama written before, during and after the 20th century".

The draft curriculum, revealed by The TES in June, was written after a consultation revealed teachers wanted more freedom to choose texts.

Consultation on it is not due to finish until May 2007.

Sir Mike Tomlinson, a QCA board member, accused Mr Johnson of short-circuiting the consultation process. "It throws into question what is really meant by consultation and review," he said. "I think it is very sad."

Department for Education and Skills officials said Mr Johnson had wanted to ensure there was "no danger of dumbing down and dumping the great classics".

But Bethan Marshall, a senior lecturer in English education at King's College, London, said there was no danger of that happening anyway.

"The overwhelming message you get from English teachers is that certain texts are important and should be studied but that they want to get rid of the rigidity of a prescribed canon," she said.

"Telling English graduates what they should and shouldn't teach seems a bit nonsensical. If they don't know who good writers are then they shouldn't be teaching English."

Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Association of College and School Leaders, said the Government was getting back into the habit of micro-managing teachers.

Martin Johnson, head of education with the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said it was deeply disappointing.

It is unclear what will happen next. The Education Secretary has said that the current list of 19 authors "must" remain.

However, it is understood that although the QCA, which will report back to ministers in September, will insert the list of authors into the plans, its contents will still go out to consultation.

The Education Secretary has also asked the authority to review the list of modern authors - which is at present recommended rather than prescribed - which had also disappeared in the new draft curriculum.

"Young people also need to read books by dynamic modern authors which fire their imagination, inform their love of language and extend their knowledge of form," said Mr Johnson.

Leader 16

* william.stewart@tes.co.uk


Qualifications and Curriculum Authority guidelines prescribe the following reading for 11- to 14-year-olds:

* A Shakespeare play

* Works of fiction by two major pre-1914 writers from a list that includes Jane Austen, Charlotte Bront , John Bunyan, Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Anthony Trollope (below) and H G Wells.

* Poetry by four major poets published before 1914 from a list that includes Matthew Arnold, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Burns, Geoffrey Chaucer, John Keats, John Milton, Christina Rossetti, William Shakespeare (sonnets), Alfred Lord Tennyson, and William Wordsworth.

They also say children must read works from the following categories - but teachers have more flexibility to choose which authors:

* Two works of fiction by major writers published after 1914 (examples include E M Forster, Graham Greene, James Joyce and D H Lawrence)

* A drama by a major playwright (eg Oliver Goldsmith, Harold Pinter and J B Priestley)

* Poetry by four major poets published after 1914 (eg W H Auden, Gillian Clarke, T S Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin)

* Recent and contemporary writers (eg plays by Alan Ayckbourn, Samuel Beckett and Alan Bennett; novels by J G Ballard, Berlie Doherty and Susan Hill; and poems by James Berry, Douglas Dunn and Jo Shapcott)

* Major writers from different cultures and traditions (eg drama by Athol Fugard, Arthur Miller and Wole Soyinka; fiction by Willa Cather, Anita Desai and John Steinbeck; and poetry by Robert Frost, Robert Lowell and Rabindranath Tagore)

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