Michael “Oiky” Gove keeps on telling anyone who will listen – so that’s a decreasing target audience, then – that examinations need to be made more “rigorous”. This is a fine-sounding word to pitch before the more credulous part of the Fourth Estate, as he will know, having been a journalist for many years. The problem was that, before long, he would have to show what the term actually meant.
Yes, "Oiky", you're a philistine
And now, with the release of a new GCSE English Literature curriculum, we can see just what “rigour” means in “Oiky” world. Despite this being reported in the Murdoch Sunday Times, one clear copy of the relevant article duly taken and shared (see how we did that, Rupe?) means that no paywall payments have to be made. What has been assembled, reportedly with Gove’s personal blessing, is bad news for pupils.
“Oiky” apparently wants students to study works by British writers, and that means “a pre-20th Century novel by an author such as Charles Dickens or Jane Austen, poetry by the Romantics, and a Shakespeare play”. Reportedly, “the exam boards had to follow strict guidelines from the Department for Education when drawing up the new literature GCSE”. But, so what?
The “so what” becomes relevant when you see what has been left out as a result: “The John Steinbeck novella Of Mice and Men, and other American classics including Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible and the Harper Lee novel To Kill A Mockingbird” are dropped. Yes, To Kill A Mockingbird dropped from the syllabus – a great novel, and one from which pupils learn so much.
This is a work that brings recent history and an understanding of endemic racism home to anyone reading it, and who was not already aware of such issues. It helps its readers to understand that authority and the conventional wisdom are sometimes there to be questioned. It shows how only tolerance and understanding can make headway against bigotry and intolerance.
And to exclude Steinbeck, especially his portrayal of migrant workers and the difficulties they faced – maybe, in many parts of the world, still do face – is breathtakingly short sighted. Then there is the DfE explanation for the choices underpinning this wonderful new syllabus. First there is the assertion that “a 19th Century novel written anywhere” can be included.
This, more or less, excludes Stateside literature. Then the catch-all: “In the past, English Language GCSEs were not rigorous enough and their content was often far too narrow”. Narrow? NARROW? Hear that bullshit detector howl! This is excusing by flannelspeak. It risks knocking the enthusiasm to learn out of pupils, and turning an interesting subject into a sterile and less accessible one.
But his press pals will line up to cheer Gove, so that’s all right, then.
The c19th thing doesn't specifically exclude american literature but I can't see Moby-Dick or early Henry James ending up on a GCSE syllabus anytime soon.
Essentially this is one of Gove's columnist policies. Decides he dislikes something based, more or less, on anecdote and personal prejudice, then enacts a ridiculous knee jerk reaction pretty much out of spite. I'm surprised he didn't also go for The Great Gatsby which feels even more central to A-Level than Steinbeck at GCSE.
It's a terrible idea to specify c19th above all others so early - I distinctly remember what a hard sell Austen was to a GCSE classroom when I was taking them. the teacher, a brilliant teacher, more or less gave up. Steinbeck worked well at that level - maybe that was the problem, since Gove obviously wants results to decline in order to present for-profit (and specifically Murdoch's for-profit) as the only way for British education to succeed.
Also the specification that they have to read Romantic poetry means the return of William fucking Blake just after he mercifully exited A-Level, who, much as I love him, should be withheld til the 3rd year of University, so hard is he to write well on.
You get the feeling that it'd be more efficient and cost-effective (in Gove's mind) if every summer he just had a parade of every GCSE candidate through his office, and on cursory information and his own personal prejudices stamp them with PASS or FAIL.
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