GCSE English Literature hit the headlines after outrage on social media at the “banning” of certain well-loved texts including John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
The DfE were swift to claim that they have not banned any texts and denying Michael Gove has “a particular dislike” of Of Mice and Men. But what has not been denied is that Gove had significant personal influence over the design of the new syllabus (as distinct from the exams themselves, which the exam boards control).
The DfE called in a “board of experts” who recommended changes and these chime fortuitously with previous statements made by Gove. The changes include the removal of the longstanding requirement to study literature from other cultures and traditions and place greater emphasis on pre-1914 texts.
As each exam board in turn published its new exams and it became clear none of them had included non-compulsory texts such as Of Mice and Men, the DfE changed tactics and through various proxies blamed the “craven” exam boards for only including questions on compulsory elements of the syllabus.
This sort of bluster is either cover for the fact that Gove and Co really do want a narrow, old fashioned curriculum or it reveals genuine technical incompetence, i.e. that the DfE really didn’t understand how exam boards work.
Around 2012 Gove appeared to be serious about the idea of abolishing the free market in exams and having only one national exam board. He soon abandoned the idea (presumably after lobbying by huge education companies like Pearson who make vast profits from the current system).
As long as there is a free market in exams, the boards have no interest in unilaterally including a wider range of study into their exams, for fear their competitors will then have an easier qualification which schools will rush to adopt.
Ironically the result of Gove’s attempts at reform means children in most schools will read fewer texts, spending more time doing endless practice for the new terminal exams. Another — presumably unintended — consequence of the abolition of coursework/controlled assessment is the narrowing of which works can be studied. For example, exam boards are naming four or five Shakespeare choices instead of specifying “a Shakespeare play” as some do now.
With immense pressure on schools to produce results or face a hostile takeover by an academy sponsor, why would a Headteacher allow a Head of Department to teach extra books instead of focusing on systematic essay practice?
Why would individual teachers object to this when their pay is now linked directly to the exam results of their students?
Why would students or parents fight back when everyone is told that exam results are the single most important link to success later in life?
What is necessary to fight for a broad curriculum is a totally different vision of education. Some reasonable initial demands would be for independent bodies completely separate from the DfE to design syllabi, establishment of one single exam board and abolition of exams at 16 altogether, as recommended by that bastion of lefty teacher radicalism the CBI.
With teacher autonomy declining, many do not even see it as their role to question what is handed down from above.
The National Union of Teachers and others have a lot of work to do in getting teachers involved in helping design and fight for the curriculum our children deserve — one which should be “broad” in every sense, including helping them to question the world around them.