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Culture Michael Gove

Published on June 9th, 2014 | by Taji Rafferty
Image © Michael Gove

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The Best laid plans of Michael Gove

In a statement to the House of Commons in April, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, foreshadowed planned ‘improvements in state education’1. Initially, the content of these ‘improvements’ was not made entirely clear, but it was assured that they would be ‘rooted in evidence that works’ and generate more ‘demanding’ and ‘rigorous’ examinations2.

After an assessment by  Ofqual and the Department for Education (DfE), it was revealed that the content and structure of GCSE English must be reformed, as it is ‘far too narrow’3.

The reforms, scheduled for September 2015, will place a greater emphasis on texts from the British Isles, as opposed to American authors such as Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) and John Steinbeck (Of Mice and Men). The new agenda will include ‘at least one play by William Shakespeare, work by the Romantic poets, a 19th Century novel, poetry since 1850 and a 20th Century novel or drama’.

Unsurprisingly, the plans prefigure a very conservative program for English Literature. The DfE revealed that the reforms intend to ‘focus on tradition’, and OCR has revealed that ‘70-80 percent of books’ on the new syllabus will be from ‘the English Cannon’4.

A dissenting voice on the issue has emerged from a Labour spokesperson, which referred to the plans as an attempt to put ‘ideological interests ahead of the interests of our children.’5

However, whether or not Gove is influenced by a Conservative agenda, there is valid evidence to suggest that the plans are beneficial for everyone. OCR’s head of GCSE and A-level reform, Paul Dodd, revealed that ‘more than 90% of candidates were studying’ Of Mice and Men, a book which ‘has been on the syllabus for more than 30 years’6.

Undoubtedly, Steinbeck’s novella was chosen because it is easy for pupils to understand and for teachers to convey. But, with the advancement of the internet, combined with the fact that it has been taught for many years, the text no longer poses a suitable challenge for the average GCSE student.

The plot and themes of texts such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men are almost general knowledge, and anyone who is not familiar with them needs look no further than Google search. There is a large supply of film and theatre productions (in addition to the book), as well as an extensive stream of essays, reviews, and study-guides that can be read alongside. Teachers are thus forced to repeatedly regurgitate the same analytical points year after year, much to the discomfort of many pupils, who are probably quite capable of learning the same points from their smartphones.

Ultimately, this reform could be an exciting change, allowing teachers to guide their lessons along a road less travelled. The new reforms may, within boundaries, lead to a varied circulation of texts, as opposed to having a single book taught for several decades. Otherwise, depending on how much practical choice teachers are allowed, students may find themselves studying the minutiae of social etiquette in upper-class society, entailed in many 19th Century English novels, for the next 30 years.

Please note that all blog posts do not represent the views of Catch21 but only of the individual writers. We also aim to be factually accurate and balanced across all content taken as a whole.

1 https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/michael-gove-an-education-system-which-works-for-every-child

2 https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/michael-gove-an-education-system-which-works-for-every-child

3 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-27563466

4 http://www.standard.co.uk/news/education/of-mice-and-men-and-to-kill-a-mockingbird-among-casualties-in-michael-goves-syllabus-shakeup-9432662.html

5 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-27563466

6 http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/05/michael-goves-provincial-syllabus-not-issue-english-literature-gcse-slowly-being

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