Rule Britannia: Is it really best to only read texts written in Britain?


Michael Gove intends to restrict the texts that are studied at Key Stage 4 English to include only those that come ‘from the British Isles from 1914 onwards’. This seems at odds with the planned English Baccalaureate – that which was meant to broaden the education of our secondary school pupils – as with one fell swoop (of his pen), Gove places strict limits on the literature which our students can study.

This decision has been widely commented upon in the media. Michael Rosen’s Letter from a curious parent responds to it, as did a radio 4 play last week. It was discussed widely on social media, and was reported in many (all?) of the newspapers that I could see on the stands. The overwhelming reaction is one of disbelief: what possible reason could there be to stop students studying texts that originated in other languages or other cultures?

As a means of teaching an understanding of other cultures, English literature is unparalleled. For some students, the exploration of another language or culture during their English lesson is the only time they might get to do so.  This seems to be something that Gove has overlooked.

We could, perhaps, give Gove the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps this meddling with the specific texts that can and cannot be studied at GCSE was well-meaning. Perhaps Gove simply meant to shake up the teaching in English departments up and down the country – perhaps he wanted to stop the never-ending rotation of the ‘Of Mice and Men’ resources , those that were being used twenty years ago and are still being relied upon now. Perhaps he wanted to re-energise the classroom – to force teachers to develop new and interesting schemes of work, on new and interesting texts…?

No, I don’t believe that either. As Michael Rosen pointed out in his most recent Letter from a Confused Parent, the limits that have been imposed on the GCSE set texts mean that texts such as Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales and Moby Dick are now considered unworthy of study. These books are classics – they should be an important and valued part of our literary cannon – and to strike them out based on their geographic origins is madness. As is increasingly the case, I’d love to have a discussion with Michael Gove about this policy (and many others). I’d love him to take into account my professional opinion – and hear the reasons behind the decisions that he has made. Of course, this will never happen. But without some kind of dialogue between the Minister for Education and teaching professionals, the risk of alienating one side from the other increases all the time.

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