This was originally published on 14th June 2013 on a now defunct blog.
Okay, confession time: I can’t stand those ‘why I teach’-type posts. I find them a bit self-indulgent, if I’m honest, and I am far more interested in what we teach and how we teach.
With that in mind, this post isn’t an attempt to talk about myself. It is merely an anecdote of my schooling which serves as the reason I think that the new GCSE proposals in English have a lot that is good and right about them.
I attended a normal comprehensive school in the late 1980s and early 1990s (I know, I look way too young, right? Right? Ah, forget it…) I spent most of my time back then listening to The Stone Roses and writing bad song lyrics in the back of my French book. School, largely, passed me by. I was quiet and quite introverted, but got on well enough with pretty much everyone in the year group. I was allowed to drift through without being pushed to succeed. And I was rubbish at a lot of subjects. In fact, I was in the bottom set for English when I started my GCSEs.
I can remember walking into my GCSE English class on the first day of the 4th year (that’s Year 10 to you – as we all know, changing what we call the levels of an ordering system makes it more rigorous). It was a class that was entirely full of boisterous lads. Lads who I got on alright with, but it wasn’t much fun to be in a classroom with. Lads who took the piss out of The Stone Roses. Lads who I now see on Facebook getting all excited about Roses reunions. Such is life. Anyway, all I can really remember about that room is the noise and that there was barely any room to sit down. I don’t remember much about the first lesson or how long it lasted but, at some point, something really fortuitous happened…
The head of English knocked on the door and said that a few people from the class were going to have to move from this class to the top set. The top set wasn’t very full and this bottom set class was bursting at the seams. They asked for volunteers. I turned to a mate who was sat in my row: he nodded at me and we put our hands up. I think about 4 or 5 of us went. I don’t know if anyone else volunteered, but we were pointed at, asked to grab our stuff and we left the lads to whatever it is those lads did for the next two years. We were going to the top set.
The top set was lovely. They were calm and they were good listeners. We settled in quite well, and I seem to remember that, as this was a group of high fliers, they had taken an extra GCSE option which meant that they had 1 less English lesson than we did. That meant that the 4 or 5 of us got an entire English lesson every week with just us and the teacher.
I don’t really remember much about the content of lessons. I remember the teacher talking to the pupils like peers, discussing things intelligently. But what I really remember is the reading. We read texts from cover to cover. And we read lots. We read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’; we read ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’; we read ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’. And we talked about what we were reading. And something happened to me: I found out I loved reading. I didn’t always understand everything that I was reading (I was lower ability) and I didn’t always enjoy the texts that I was reading. But I enjoyed learning from them. I enjoyed learning about them. I enjoyed talking about them. And I learned lots. I can remember really disliking Hardy at the time, but I also can recall learning all about fate and determinism and how interesting it was. And, although I may not have valued it at the time, the value I place on reading that book now is immense. It was an introduction to critical theory, although I didn’t know it at the time. Years later, at university, it was this formative experience that allowed me to flourish in reading texts within a critical context.
I can also remember at the end of term – midway through Year 11 – seeing the English teachers throwing some old books in the big bins and wheeling them out to the caretaker’s bay. I went to those bins at breaktime and pulled out tattered old copies of the books I’d read, and others too. I still have them now.
Reading Thomas Hardy and Shakespeare made me. It made me go out and read more Shakespeare. And from there I discovered other books to read. And I read and read from that point onwards.
I’m not from a family that placed any emphasis on higher education. I was encouraged to go out to work after finishing A levels (which was further in education than my older brother and sister ever got – they left school after GCSEs/O Levels). And go out to work is what I did. But all the while I was working, I was also reading a huge wealth of literature for pleasure. And then, in my late 20s, I decided to go to university. And I worked 4 days a week whilst also studying full time for my degree. It was a bit unfashionable to do so, but I read everything they put on my reading lists. The bottom set pupil. Who hated reading.
The one single thing that got me where I am today, is the cultural capital I was endowed with in being made to read Hardy and Shakespeare from cover to cover. So, please don’t tell me it is elitist to teach pupils great works of 19th century literature. It’s elitist NOT to teach these texts to everyone. It’s elitist to leave these to the top set pupils or those pupils whose parents buy them an expensive education.
Now, I will concede that perhaps the curriculum may be too narrow in only focusing on 19th century novels, and I can understand an argument that it assumes that all great literature was written before 1900. But how is that different to the current curriculum? The current AQA GCSE Literature exam revolves around a similarly narrow field of ‘modern’ set texts. There’s nothing from before 1937 on there. I don’t hear many complaints about that.
For me, the proposals offer pupils a challenge. A challenge similar to the ones that I got at school. As David Didau says, learning should be difficult, not easy. I, for one, am looking forward to the challenge. I may not enjoy it, at times. The pupils may not enjoy it, at times. But I am certain that the cultural capital they will gain from studying such texts is worth it.