THE BLOG
27/05/2014 11:19 BST | Updated 26/07/2014 06:59 BST

Why Studying 'Of Mice and Men' Matters

The writing was on the wall for this classic American novella even before Gove's recent announcement to drop Of Mice and Men from the English GCSE syllabus when, several years ago now, it was shunted into the category of 'Other Cultures'. That is not to say that the study of other cultures is not important, but in moving it into this category I feel that the hope behind this decision was to relegated it to a footnote in the teaching of English. Once again, Gove seems to have timed this announcement during a school break, just like he did last summer when he unceremoniously announced that Speaking and Listening was to be dropped as a component of English Language GCSE, arguing that this was the one element of the English curriculum that the boards couldn't monitor effectively. In other words, Gove seemed to be suggesting that teachers cheat. This is how little he seems to think of the profession. And yet, as an English teacher, we still have to carry out and record Speaking and Listening tasks, but they will not count towards the final GCSE grade. Add this to an exam system soon to be linear and all exams based and we are entering into an era where every pupil in this country will be tested not on their intelligence necessarily, but on their ability to beat the clock. In my experience many pupils who have failed to achieve their estimated grades have failed only because of time constraints not for lack of knowledge and understanding.

Paul Dodd, Head of the OCR exam board stated that Gove has dropped this great book because he "had a particular dislike for Of Mice and Men," and that alone is appalling but in keeping with Gove's one-man assault on education which has seen him create a teaching recruitment crisis in just 4 years. The last Tory government took over a decade to achieve this. But then, Gove himself seems to be working to a strict deadline; May 2015, so he must try and rip apart, sorry I mean 'reform' the education system as quickly as he can. I have taught many a text that I have not enjoyed personally, but I know the pupils have. I know that the pupils in front of me have gained something from the study of the particular text, something that is universal or even personal to their own understanding of the world. While many teachers take this pupil-centric approach when choosing the texts they teach, Gove seems to be taking a very personal approach ignoring the ever-increasing voices of discontent amongst the profession. Of Mice and Men, as one of its many themes, looks at the outsider, the lonely and the dejected in a context of the Great Depression. It can be a gateway for our pupils to understand the issues that are still prevalent today, but maybe issues that the current government would have us rather forget; recession, fear of the outsider - a strong ideological underpinning of UKIP's own hateful message to its would-be voters - and broken dreams. What's more, it is a powerful book. When I read the death of Curley's Wife (a fact that, in future years I will have to label as a spoiler, should no-one study this book) to my class, you can hear a pin drop. Whether I am reading it with a lower ability class or a top set, all pupils can access it and enjoy it. And that is the point. Pupils enjoy this book. Hopefully, this is what we are trying to instill in our youth too. An enjoyment of reading as well as an enjoyment of learning that all children can take away from their school years, regardless of their results.

In a syllabus that will still include Shakespeare - in my views for the same reasons we study Of Mice and Men, because of its relevance that resonates through the ages - there is still room for other authors from other cultures and communities. How Steinbeck's novella does not focus on tradition, the argument put forward by the Department For Education (DfE) for the shift in focus to even more British writing, I do not know. The last time I checked prejudice and poverty were part of our tradition and heritage. But then, government interference and censorship are also part of our tradition too, and sadly remains part of our present cultural landscape.

IOf English and/or English Literature become one dimensional and inaccessible to many, where will our next generation of A Level and University students studying Literature come from? Where will the enjoyment of reading be fostered in a society where boys literacy levels are still lower than girls? Many of the boys I teach are encouraged to read after studying this text. Many even go on to explore other writings by Steinbeck. This will all be obsolete should novels like Of Mice and Men cease to exist in our curriculum.

However, we should not be asking for Gove to be pushed out of office, after all he unites the public and teachers alike against such changes. Whether he listens or not will be revealed when draft syllabuses for the new GCSE exams are announced later this week. I hope I am proven incorrect for once.