Syal but no Steinbeck in English GCSE

Meera Syal Meera Syal is set to become one the most widely-read classroom authors

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Wolverhampton-born Meera Syal and Indian-born George Orwell rub shoulders with Shakespeare and Dickens in a new GCSE English literature book list.

But the AQA exam board's proposed set texts for England's schools do not include any American novels or plays.

There have been protests and online petitions over the OCR exam board's dropping of US authors such as John Steinbeck or Arthur Miller.

Education Secretary Michael Gove rejected claims of any "ban".

Sherlock Holmes also makes an appearance in the AQA's draft list, in The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle, Alan Bennett's History Boys is a drama option and Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade thunders in as a set text for poetry.

Mockingbird row

Earlier this week, Mr Gove wrote in the Daily Telegraph that the reforms to GCSEs had been intended to widen the range of literature taught in secondary schools.

AQA GCSE English literature

Shakespeare plays:

  • Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, Julius Caesar, The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest

19th Century novel:

  • Charles Dickens - Great Expectations
  • Charles Dickens - A Christmas Carol
  • Robert Louis Stevenson - The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
  • Mary Shelley - Frankenstein
  • Jane Austen - Pride and Prejudice
  • Charlotte Bronte - Jane Eyre
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - The Sign of Four

Post-1914 drama and prose

  • JB Priestley - An Inspector Calls
  • Alan Bennett - The History Boys
  • Willy Russell - Blood Brothers
  • Dennis Kelly - DNA
  • Shelagh Delaney - A Taste of Honey
  • Simon Stephens - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time (drama adaptation)
  • William Golding - The Lord of the Flies
  • George Orwell - Animal Farm
  • Kazuo Ishiguro - Never Let Me Go
  • Meera Syal - Anita and Me
  • Stephen Kelman - Pigeon English

Beyond a set of core requirements, Mr Gove said exam boards had no restrictions on their choice of authors and suggestions of a book ban for works such as To Kill a Mockingbird were "rooted in fiction".

But there have been protests that the requirements set out for exam boards - "fiction or drama from the British Isles from 1914 onwards" - effectively exclude American modern classics from writers such as Arthur Miller, F Scott Fitzgerald or Tennessee Williams.

But a Department for Education spokesman said the requirements represent "only the minimum pupils will be expected to learn" and that exam boards could still include modern writers from outside the British Isles.

In response, the AQA said "technically it would not be impossible to add additional texts beyond the essential requirements, to do so would place an unacceptable assessment burden on teachers and students".

The titles on the AQA's list for prose and drama are from British-born or British-based writers, including Willy Russell, Alan Bennett and Kazuo Ishiguro.

The reforms to the English literature GCSE exam aim to ensure that pupils read a wider range of literary work, across a range of eras, and to prevent an over-emphasis on a handful of over-used texts.

Michael Gove says that in one year "280,000 candidates studied just one novel for the AQA GCSE" - and that the "overwhelming majority" of these were using John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.

The new requirements also specify that pupils study "whole texts in detail" because of concerns that novels were being studied in disconnected chunks, chasing marks rather than the comprehension of a full work.

The set texts from the AQA exam board are divided into the categories required by the revamped GCSE.

As well as post-1914, there are selections of Shakespeare plays and 19th Century novels. These include hardy perennials from Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, alongside Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

The exam board visited over 250 schools to test the views of teachers on what should be included - and the inclusion of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein reflected the preference of teachers.

Teachers back inspector

Among modern works, teachers' favourites included Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies and An Inspector Calls.

George Orwell in 1942 George Orwell (standing second from right) appears as a set text author in two major exam boards

The poetry selection from AQA, with a requirement to include the Romantics, has a strong emphasis on British and Irish writers.

Heaney, Hardy, Hughes and Owen are included. But there is no Dylan Thomas or WB Yeats and there are no American poets such as TS Eliot, Robert Lowell, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson or Sylvia Plath.

With both the AQA and OCR exam boards having revealed their selections, the authors of the new classic exam texts for teenagers are emerging.

AQA GCSE English literature poetry

  • Byron, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Thomas Hardy, Maura Dooley, Charlotte Mew, C Day Lewis, Charles Causley, Seamus Heaney, Simon Armitage, Owen Sheers, Daljit Nagra, Andrew Waterhouse, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Tennyson, Wilfred Owen, Ted Hughes, Simon Armitage, Jane Weir, Carol Ann Duffy, Imtiaz Dharker, Carol Rumens, Beatrice Garland, John Agard

It won't be Thomas Hardy, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh or JD Salinger, but instead Meera Syal's Anita and Me appears on both lists, along with George Orwell's Animal Farm, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go and Dennis Kelly's DNA.

Andrew Hall, AQA's chief executive, said: "We know that everyone will have an opinion about which texts should be studied and that we can't please everyone.

"However, the combination and choice we have included on our set text lists has been guided by the feedback we have had from English teachers, whose job it is to bring literature to life."

"We want to make sure that we include a combination of titles that will engage and appeal to students of all abilities at the same time as allowing us to create stimulating exam papers."

The proposals from AQA have now been submitted to the regulator Ofqual for accreditation.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said: "The new GCSEs in English literature will be broader and more challenging for pupils than those available at the moment. They will give pupils the chance to study some this country's fantastic literary heritage, including works by Jane Austen, George Orwell, Kazuo Ishiguro and Meera Syal.

"We have not banned any authors, books or genres. The exam boards have decided what literature to include, subject to the minimum requirements we set out.

"GCSE specifications are only a starting point. Parents will rightly expect their children to read more than four pieces of literature over two years of studying for their GCSEs. It is important that pupils read widely, as they will in future be tested on two unseen texts which can be by authors outside of the exam board specification."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 973.

    971. David Lilley

    After the American Revolution there were mainly English(and slaves) and spoke what is today American accents. The British have made up their accent in the last 300 years.

    England 2,100,000
    Africa 757,000
    Ulster Scot-Irish 300,000
    Germany 270,000
    Scotland 150,000
    Ireland 8,000
    Netherlands 100,000
    Wales 10,000
    France 15,000

  • rate this

    Comment number 972.

    969. David Lilley

    Most science fiction is an allegory for the present which is why it is usually so dystopian

  • rate this

    Comment number 971.

    It was the Irish that took the English language to the US in greater numbers than the English. Probably more Germans, Italians and Russian emigrated than English. They speak English (more speak Spanish today) because English beat German by one vote when choosing a national language.

    Always better to speak of stuff than stories.

  • rate this

    Comment number 970.

    Americans in 1776 did have British accents in that American accents and British accents hadn’t yet diverged. That’s not too surprising.
    What’s surprising, though, is that those accents were much closer to today’s American accents than to today’s British accents. While both have changed over time, it’s actually British accents that have changed much more drastically since then.

  • rate this

    Comment number 969.

    So much comment on what is a "soft" subject, stories.

    And by the way Eric Blair/George Orwell wrote a book called 1948 but his publisher would only publish if he changed the title to 1984. It isn't about the future but Stalinist Russia in 1948.


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