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Does Politicising Education Start With Changing the Reading List?

06/08/2014 13:27 BST | Updated 05/10/2014 10:59 BST

According to the National Union of Teachers there is "a politicisation of school inspection" . This, following the exit of one of the most controversial education secretaries, Michael Gove, and the appointment of David Hoare to the position of Ofsted chair. Before having left, Gove and the coalition government managed to change a good many things within the education system, one of them being the reading list for English. And this, being designed to centre on English literature, could be where this suspected "politicisation" began.

David Hoare - a man known more for his business acumen rather than experience of educating young minds - is leaving his current job as a trustee of failing academy chain AET to take up his new role at Ofsted. As the organisation charged with ensuring the education system runs smoothly, it seems odd that, a "strong track record in business and the passion he demonstrated throughout the interview process" should be the primary attributes for the chair of Ofsted. Which is how the new education secretary, Nicky Morgan described Hoare's credentials for the job.

This appointment will only really be revealed as a success or failure over the next couple of months. That includes finding out the sort of changes Hoare will make, and the influence over decisions he is allowed. It could be a great leap that proves taking a business-sided angle was just what was needed - or it could further a politicisation that Gove set in motion before he left.

One of the decisions Gove made earlier on in the year, which kicked up an almighty media backlash, was his announcement that some American literature would be removed from the syllabus in favour of English novels. The best known of these titles were To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men. And at first glance of the stats, it might appear a reasonable decision in order to encourage students to read other novels.

According to exam board OCR, Of Mice and Men was studied by 90 per cent of teenagers. "Michael Gove said that was a really disappointing statistic. In the new syllabus 70-80 per cent of the books are from the English canon." the exam board said at the time.

Sure, it will be nice for English kids to be able to learn a lot about their own culture - but 70-80 per cent of the syllabus? What about the rest of the world? As Christopher Bigsby, professor of American Studies at the University of East Anglia, said in Maev Kennedy's article for the Guardian: "Of course we should teach important works of English literature, but a glimpse of an alternative world view has its value."

If we accept that we need to learn about our own literary culture, or even culture through literature, then we need to accept we must learn about others. It could nurture tolerance by learning from and about other views. For example, if our reading stopped at Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness without considering Chinua Achebe's passionate and furious reply, Things Fall Apart, then there would be no emotional insight into the loss, or intentional, cultural invasion by colonial Britain. Would readers have considered Conrad's novel could be perceived as wildly racist without Achebe's rebuke? It is these novels that move culture on and give a range of opinions for readers to assess for themselves which they agree with.

Then there is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel Half of a Yellow Sun. It delves, not only, into the dark dealings and corruption during the Biafran war in the late 60s, but also the assistance that Britain, and other nations, gave to the Nigerian government and their role in cutting off humanitarian aid to the new nation. This contributed to starvation across Biafra. These novels consider us as the oppressor, destroyer and enemy of a culture. And it is healthy to see that not all we do is good.

Would this be something that Jane Austen can teach us? I have nothing against Austen. And it would be unfair to challenge her novel for not providing this view. That is not what her novels were for. But when selecting reading material for study surely there should be variety and engaging opinions that encourage learning wider than the novel itself. Especially if it encourages people to ask questions.

Some may argue that it is up to history books to give us this opposing view, but Gove's now famous rant that anti-World War I teaching is from "left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths by attacking Britain's role in the conflict" would imply we're not allowed that anymore. Besides, I was always taught it was a necessary war, it was just that the tactics were crap, and Gove is missing his own point. By taking away a 'lefty' view this is reducing the number of arguments history books usually try to present.

However, even if we have all arguments and consider as many angles as possible, history books will rarely give the valuable emotional account of history that novels can. A novel carries emotional insight that benefits an argument. Even when fictional a novel can still deliver historical accuracy. For instance, Ai Mi's novel Under the Hawthorn Tree is an excruciatingly painful account of the Cultural Revolution in China and seems to be able to bypass much of the censorship during that time to give historical content. The very same educational emotions, which teach about difficulties in different cultures run through Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground, and the aforementioned Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun and Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart.

By encouraging a narrow line of reading and constricting study to a singular culture it is easy to become restricted to one view. It is politicising a system. It could even be suggested this is a form of censure. It's all starting to lean towards 1984, Brave New World (which are great novels by English authors, by the way).

BBC political correspondent, Vicki Young says, that Mr Hoare's appointment would be "far less controversial" than the alternative of multi-millionaire Tory donor David Ross. But did the politicising start with the syllabus and not the chair? If we are to become a tolerant society which understands further cultures and is able to think and argue for itself then if anything, a wider range of reading is needed to educate. Hoare's appointment is considered by the National Union of Teachers to be a politicising of the education system now. If the reading list continues to narrow the real result will be only realised in months, or even years to come.