"Gove kills the mockingbird with ban on US classic novels" - Sunday Times headline, 25 May 2014
"I have not banned anything. Nor has anyone else." - Michael Gove in the Telegraph, 26 May 2014
This weekend the Education Secretary hit back at claims he had banned a number of American novels from the GCSE curriculum, saying the accusation was itself "rooted in fiction." So what's going on?
Last year the Department for Education set out its requirements for new courses beginning in September 2015, including that for GCSE English Literature.
The new requirements mean exam boards have had to update their syllabuses. And one board, OCR, has said the requirements mean there is no room on its new syllabus for some of the American novels that had previously been staples of the course. Other boards are due to finalise their own syllabuses by the end of this week.
Being dropped from the syllabus doesn't mean the books are 'banned' from schools. But it does mean students won't be examined on them, something that is in practice likely to influence how often they're taught.
GCSE English Literature; then and now
Students of the English Literature GCSE had been required to study at least six texts, including ones that;
- Had English, Welsh, or Irish literary heritage
- Were from different cultures and traditions
- Were by contemporary writers
In the course of this students had to look at least one work of prose, poetry and drama. And in England they had to study at least one play by Shakespeare.
American fiction such as To Kill a Mockingbird qualified as coming from a 'different tradition' to English, Welsh and Irish literature, meaning it could form a core part of the curriculum.
The new requirements mean students must study texts including;
- At least one play by Shakespeare
- At least one 19th century novel
- At least one piece of fiction or drama from the British Isles from 1914 onwards
- A selection of poetry since 1789, including Romantic poetry
Nothing prohibits exam boards from including twentieth century American fiction on their syllabuses, but if they do include such books these will be 'extras' in terms of what is required.
This has prompted exam board OCR to drop a number of books from its draft syllabus, including To Kill a Mockingbird among others. We will soon know more about the extent to which they have 'dropped' from other syllabus; exam boards will be submitting their draft syllabuses to the qualifications and examinations regulator Ofqual this week.
Of course, schools will still be able to teach the books in GCSE classrooms even if the books are not examined on. It's not clear how many would do this in practice.
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