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'The tyranny of "relevance" is razing English to the ground'

The idea that English should be functionalist, utilitarian and employment-related must be challenged, says Andrew Otty

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The idea that English should be functionalist, utilitarian and employment-related must be challenged, says Andrew Otty

The oversubscribed fallacy of "relevance" is razing English to the ground. As autumn term begins in colleges, lecturers will be scratching their heads, wondering why A-level English entries are down a tenth in two years and why creative writing did not survive A-level reforms. They can rightly assign blame to the “wasted years” of key stage 3, when English is routinely neglected under the whip of senior leaderhsip teams that demand focus on Year 11. They can also rightly point the finger at KS4, where the liberating new GCSE specification has confounded departments in the habit of manufacturing controlled assessments. But another finger should be pointing right back at them as silent collaborators in the sector’s failure to challenge the tyranny of "relevance"; the notion that English for any student other than the most able, should be something functionalist, utilitarian and employment-related.

I was once praised in an Ofsted report for motivating low-ability students to analyse Romeo and Juliet “because of the links made to the modern world”. Looking at that now, it makes me shudder. You might easily imagine I had them budgeting the Capulets’ party or writing first-aid guidance for stab wounds. What really happened was that I was fortunate enough with that particular group to connect them with a story of love, unsympathetic parents, partying, rivalry, brawling, drugs, sex, passion; all quite relevant to a group of teenagers. All quite relevant to anyone. I assume I’m not alone in having taken up the vocation of English teaching due to recognising the transcendent humanity in literature. But I hear English teachers, actual English teachers, claiming that the new GCSE’s 19th-century literature element can’t be made relevant to young people. That’s our job!

The idea that English for the weak and the vulnerable should be something "applied" is supported by many powerful and wealthy people. Employers’ lobbying groups loudly advocate the conditioning of their future fodder. Boards offering functionalist curricula hear the kerchings of a million little cash registers. And far too many educators are poised ready to bin GCSE resits and embrace something more "relevant". “Is this a risk assessment I see before me?” drawls the Mr Keating of this dystopia.

'Clearly absurd'

It’s clearly absurd to suggest that students following vocational courses have no other interest. Some of the feedback from our resitters last year was that they enjoyed our classes precisely because they were different. Of course, it can sometimes be appropriate and effective to link up with vocational or subject interests and we did that, too, being especially lucky in the support that our vocational staff give to English, but we didn’t overdo it. As with all good teaching, we used a variety of tools and tricks to engage and support our students. We did not shy away from fiction, or creative writing, or the other parts of our subject that make it the most important subject of all.

Meanwhile, like priests of an unfashionable religion, A-level teachers continue to preach to a decreasing number of the converted and do not speak out against the heresy of "relevance". Due to the sheer weight of propaganda, it can feel like accepted wisdom. Also, the lower-ability students can seem intimidating if they are unfamiliar, and it’s probably easier to get them to read an email than a novel, and a qualification that’s "relevant" sounds like it would be less hassle, and probably a jolly good idea, and meanwhile the narrative of English needing to be relevant spreads like a stain beyond just the lower ability, and students flock to Stem, and the power of Stem grows and Stem employers want functionalist English... and then that spreads to secondary… and then primary… and so ends English as we remember it.

'Thrust books at young people'

When Eliot wrote, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins," a line that sent a shiver down my spine when I first read it, he was not describing the application of cement. He believed that civilisation was built on a foundation of literature, history, art and culture; that we need to be familiar with more than just the tools of our job. I’m with Eliot, but I was very lucky and acknowledge my privileges. My dad was an engineer. He left school at 15. He therefore had none of the middle-class, hand-wringing embarrassment around promoting education. It seemed like most days my dad would call me downstairs when he got home from work to thrust a new book into my hands; books he would never read himself but that he would hold reverently and command me to read. I was very lucky and so are some of our students, but many are not. The other reason I became an English teacher is to do what my dad did and thrust books at young people. I’ll be damned if that book’s going to be a manual.

Andrew Otty is a curriculum leader for post-16 English in a south-west college

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