There's a report in Saturday's Telegraph saying that the English Literature A Level has been dumbed down.
It makes for a great headline. I can just imagine the horror over afternoon tea: "Do you know they aren't teaching the classics anymore?" and "I doubt they even know who Shakespeare is nowadays. It just isn't good enough."
The Ofqual report has looked at the AQA exam board and focused on their choices of text for A Level teaching. They believe that the choice of Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Philip Pullman's Northern Lights are not sufficiently challenging for A Level students. I'm not necessarily going to dispute that, although I actually think that Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy are some of the most profound and thought-provoking books I've read in a long while. It's interesting however, that as you read the article further, a spokesman from AQA confirms that neither of these novels are on the current exam specification anymore. The mock outrage of the headline, repeated in other media too, seems therefore somewhat of a misnomer.
Is English Literature really being dumbed down?
I teach English Literature A Level. My Year 13 students this year are tackling a variety of texts including Enduring Love by Ian McEwan, Hamlet and an anthology of poetry that includes work from Petrarch to Duffy, Browning to Angelou. Their Reading for Meaning unit is called Love through the Ages and they are examined on texts from Chaucer to the modern day. Their fellow students in Year 12 are studying Victorian Literature: Hardy, Clare, Bronte, Wilde etc. In both years, pupils are encouraged to undertake wider, independent reading and indeed without showing an appreciation of a variety of texts from different genres and, for the Year 13s, from different times, they cannot hope to pass their AS or A2 examined modules.
Of course we embed an appreciation for literature from an early age. All Key Stage 3 classes study a variety of literature from different genres, cultures and periods. Our Year 7s have a weekly library lesson, in which they are encouraged to read for pleasure. Later in the year they will be introduced to Shakespeare in a module that samples extracts from a range of his plays. Our Year 8s all study a pre-twentieth century classic novel in addition to a Shakespeare play. Differing abilities are catered for in the learning activities teachers choose for their groups, but all pupils are exposed to the texts in their original forms. In addition to this, they have guided reading of modern classic novels and poetry from different cultures. Our Year 9s build on this, studying further Shakespeare plays and a range of poetry, learning to make thematic and structural links between texts they have studied. At GCSE, our pupils study both English Language and Literature.
We are passionate, as a department, in encouraging a love of literature. We wouldn't choose to teach exam specifications that we didn't believe promoted a rigorous understanding and appreciation of the texts we study. The skills our A Level students acquire don't just help them go on to study Literature at university either; they are both valuable and transferable: inference, deduction, synthesis of information from a variety of sources, analysis, and a formation of personal opinions alongside an appreciation of critical readings from many different perspectives. Our students mature into informed, independent readers.
The exam board we use is the apparently maligned AQA. However despite the shock headlines, I can assure you there's nothing dumb about our lessons!
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