Michael Gove’s changes to GCSE English syllabus ‘sheer laziness’, says award-winning Manchester author

Education Secretary Michael Gove’s decision to scrap classic school books from GCSE English syllabus was ‘sheer laziness’, claims a Faber Prize-winning Manchester author.

American classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men were dropped from the GCSE syllabus under new guidelines from Mr Gove.

Yet Livi Michael, who writes adult and children’s fiction, claims that the decision merely shows Mr Gove’s ‘laziness’ to assume a book’s age is correspondent to its quality.

She told MM: “I think the two texts in question have been on the syllabus for a long time and could be changed, but not for even older ones.

“It is sheer laziness to suggest that the age of a book is the only mark of quality – it indicates to me that that Education Secretary cannot be bothered assessing the quality of more contemporary works.

“I do not think Michael Gove should be setting the agenda at all. Why is the government not listening to writers and teachers on this subject?”

From September 2015 GCSE students will be required to study at least one Shakespeare play, the Romantic poets, a 19th century novel, a selection of post-1850 poetry and a 20th century novel or drama written in ‘the British Isles’.

The Education Secretary has defended the changes, stressing that he has not ‘banned’ any literary works.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph he said: “All we are doing is asking exam boards to broaden – not narrow – the books young people study for GCSE.”

However, despite Mr Gove’s protestations, the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE) said: “It is clear the GCSE boards are tightly restricted in what they can offer by the subject criteria.”

Dave Kitchen, from the north-west executive of teaching union NASUWT, agrees with NATE.

“I think most teachers of English would prefer to have more choice. They are professionals who love their subject and who know what would both challenge and enthuse the students,” he told MM.

“Teachers need flexibility and trust. Exam results are important but should not be confused with the general education of the child – which is more important – and the encouragement of reading as something to be enjoyed as a teenager and then as an adult.

“The general feeling (among teachers) is Gove’s lack of confidence in the profession and teachers’ frustration that he fails to consult before making major statements about education.

“ If only he applied more rigour to what he was doing rather than basing policy on a last minute thought or some distant memory of h is own school experiences.”

As well as the implications for which literary works are taught for GCSEs, Mr Kitchen said the changes will also bring about financial challenges for schools: “On a more practical note, the change will have major resourcing implications for schools at a time when they are facing major cuts in the classroom to finance the coalition governments expensive and ineffective Free Schools’ programme.”

But despite the controversy and criticism surrounding the new syllabus, some believe the issue has been blown out of proportion.

Councillor Iain Roberts , deputy leader of Stockport Council, said: “Teachers still have a great deal of discretion in which books they teach and how they teach. I trust them to use it well.

“Some people seem to have become very concerned about the exact books children should read at GCSE. I’m not.

“We have a lifetime to read whatever books we want. The important thing is to give young people a love of reading so they choose to go out and read more.

“When the announcement of Gove’s proposals first leaked out there was a lot of nonsense claiming that Gove was banning American literature from the classroom.

“Even otherwise sensible academics fell for it! It turned out that was simply untrue – books weren’t being banned at all and it’s still entirely possible to teach American classics for GCSE English.”

Gove’s changes may have divided opinion, but it seems those on both the debate agree fostering a love of reading and literature in children is as important as exam results.

Talking to MM about how best to achieve this Ms Michael said: “We have a large number of excellent writes going into schools all the time and a children’s laureate, Malorie Blackman.

“There is some evidence to suggest that the relationship between schools and writers has a direct impact on literacy – so why not work with contemporary writers in education?”

The Saddleworth-based author, whose own works include Under a Thin Moon and Inheritance, names Gillian Cross’ After Tomorrow as a contemporary work she believes would engage today’s students.

Other modern authors she describes as ‘excellent’ include David Almond, Tim Bowler and Geraldine McCaughrean.

Looking to the future of education, she said: “The point is to somehow get back into the curriculum the idea that literature is to be enjoyed, that it can be fun, and is not just about cramming for exams.”

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