Syal but no Steinbeck in English GCSE

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent

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

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.

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.

Image caption,
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.

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."