Changes to the English Literature GCSE syllabus

Last week saw the unveiling of amendments to the English Literature GCSE syllabus texts and a renewed focus on British writers. The course, from the OCR examination board, has been designed to give students a proper grounding in the “literary heritage” of Britain. The government has defended the changes, arguing that they will ensure that a more diverse range of literature is studied with courses now incorporating a 19th century novel, at least one Shakespearian play and fictional prose or a drama from 1914 onwards.

I would have liked to have seen To Kill a Mockingbird continue as required reading. It is a profoundly moving tale with a strong emphasis on moral courage and the ability to relate to another by putting yourself in their skin and walking around in it. It is a novel which contains themes with which all students can empathise; regardless of their ability or background and this level of accessibility ought not to be underestimated; particularly at a time when the popularity of reading for pleasure is in such rapid decline amongst school age children.

Curtailing the remit of GCSE literature risks a disengagement with books and the study of the text being reduced to a discussion on themes in contextual isolation. The appeal of literature relates to the way in which it encourages the reader to think beyond the boundaries of their own lives, and cultural and geographical circumstances. To restrict this is counter to the essence of education which should be about being made aware of new ideas, fostering free thinking and awareness of wider social and cultural issues. The ‘English’ part of an English literature course should be adjectival; not prescriptive and I would question how teachers are expected to engage their pupils with the nuances of English social classes which are central to the discussions revolving around Pride & Prejudice.  In addition, of course, classrooms are increasingly multicultural and to some extent the curriculum must reflect this reality by paying  attention to the acute cultural sensitivities playing out in the political and social arena. Should Dickens, Austen and Shakespeare be included? Yes, of course, but alongside Zadie Smith and Meera Syal. How, I hear you say, will material be selected? One criterion for which books, poetry or plays are included must surely be their ‘teachability’, the extent to which the text stimulates classroom discussion.The second, I would suggest, must have something to do with a literary experience as opposed to the rather tedious analysis of a book’s themes. And this is where To Kill a Mockingbird comes in as an extremely relevant example of how the words on a page can transcend what is studied in a classroom environment and have a lasting influence on a life. For me personally, having studied the book for GCSE eight years ago, the following line still resonates with me:

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”