In the comment is free section today’s Education Guardian, a number of subject experts have taken a critical look at education secretary Michael Gove’s national curriculum plans.
Sometimes their findings and conclusions run contrary to expectations. I had rather expected that most experts on the teaching of English would be in all in favour of extending the number of contemporary writers that are set. They would be more relevant and be more easily understood by students of all levels, or so the well-rehearsed argument in their favour would have it.
However, Dr Margaret Reynolds, Queen Mary, University of London, does not seem to want too much truck with the relevancy argument. She confounds that expectation by proposing what she calls a “solidly old-fashioned” set of texts may in the long run be better than what comes out of the “current fashion for setting so-called “contemporary texts”.
At university level, my colleagues are, for the most part, happy with the way students spell and, for all the scaremongering in the press about apostrophes, are not distressed by their grammar and punctuation. What bothers us most is that students going on to higher education don’t have enough background. They don’t know the Greek myths. They are terrible on the folk tales of any land. They have not read the Bible or other sacred texts. Ask them about fairy stories, and the best they can produce is a Disney version. How can they begin to read Angela Carter or Carol Ann Duffy?
There is a current fashion for setting so-called “contemporary texts” – that is works published recently – because they are deemed more “relevant” to the lives of the young people taking the exam. I love the writings of Susan Hill and Sebastian Faulkes as much as the next woman. But even those luminaries – I hazard – would like their readers to have read Jane Eyre and To the Lighthouse.
So let’s be brave in our schools with language, and yes – solidly old-fashioned with literature.
A few minutes consideration is enough to make you realise although there is much merit in what she as to say, her what she recomments may be more useful to young people who will study literature at at third-level than it is to those whose studies will end at second level.