We Can Survive a Post-OMAM World!

So, the specifications are out and I can have my say about the new KS4 literature syllabus and texts.

But first, let’s address the controversy. The furore this week has been all about American literature being banned. Of course, no-one has actually said these books are banned and these are not. It’s more subtle than that. The Secretary of State has made his position about what should be on the curriculum very clear – he wants school to be as it was when he was there regardless of how the world has turned in the interim. This has been conveyed, of course, to the exam boards and they have turned in their specifications with nary a non-Brit text in sight – certainly on AQA. So what we have is a de facto ban: what is examined is what will be taught. It doesn’t matter whether we think that’s right or desirable or any way to run an education system. It just is. If you develop a high stakes exam system – critical for both students and schools – then you will get straightforward teaching to the test.

The real question is this: is it acceptable for one person – whoever they are – to have this amount of influence over the curriculum? My view is no. As far as I can see, the role of the Secretary of State – of whatever stripe – is about ensuring through engagement and consultation vision, strategy and accountability – and by that I mean holding the system to account but also being held to account for what the system produces.

It’s not about the minutiae of day-to-day what is taught in a given subject. That should be the terrain of acknowledged experts in their fields with representative classroom teachers to provide the balance and it should be informed by genuine consultation – get out and about and talk to real teachers – not just the ones in London or on Twitter – and real students and find out about their lives, their challenges and their aspirations. It is easy, it seems to me, to sit in the ivory towers of Sanctuary House or university halls and dream up the definitive curriculum and quite another to make that work in the classroom. For too long teachers and schools have been knocking themselves out making the unworkable work and juggling the demands of politicians and Ofsted. Yet again, we will find ourselves teaching two different syllabuses and praying we don’t get it wrong. Yet again we are under immense pressure – this time to get a whole new curriculum up and running by September with each year group subject to a different KS4 curriculum and assessment pattern!

Now let’s turn to where we are at. No Of Mice and Men! I’m gutted. I’m a big fan of the novel for many reasons. Yes it’s short and I make no apology for that! But more than that, it is entirely relevant today. It does what my well-read, engineer husband maintains is the purpose of literature: addresses the human condition. It requires us to look at what happens to those on the margins, those who suffer for the whims of others. It asks us to think about what is right and moral in our dealings with each other and it shows what happens when we don’t care about those who are weak and struggling -similar territory to An Inspector Calls, another favourite text. Steinbeck is a Pulitzer Prize winning writer – if I have to defend the choice of his novels there’s something wrong.

That said, I am sanguine about its non-appearance on the new GCSE – we are putting it in Year 9 so it is not lost. The thing is, I’m all for the new emphasis on challenge, knowledge and cultural capital. I’m also keen on skills and group work and other stuff – like thinking and realising thinking is hard – so I’ll leave it to others to decide if I’m traditional or progressive. I really don’t care as I just do what I do – and it works.

You see, along with my colleagues, I’ve long bemoaned the lack of general knowledge our students have but I’d been trying to overcome this in a small way, with some success I might add. A couple of years ago when the EBACC was the only game in town (see previous slightly ranty paragraphs), I was assigned the top English EBACC Group. It was thrilling even though at least 5 of them were nowhere near that level of intellect and ability, which begs many questions about assessment but that’s for another blog! I took the idea of the EBACC and being given the brightest English students very seriously – as I do all my classes – and decided that they were going to read widely and that this would have to be done in their own time as curriculum time was too squeezed. Each term I set a reading list with two categories: classics and post 1914 – because that is the key point and the fin de siècle! They had to read one from each category and a third from either. They had to source the books themselves through the library or personal purchase, although I always bought at least one copy of each “set” text for them to borrow. And by and large, they read them, enjoyed them and had interesting things to say about them. I have no way of measuring any impact this might have had on their results but I know in my bones it was a good thing for them to have to do – and so do they.

So where does this take us? Well a few months ago me, our Head of Faculty and our Director of Literacy took ourselves off to a twilight Inset session run by David Didau on the perfect KS3 curriculum. It blew us away. I can’t speak for the other two, who are bright young things, but I had certainly been moribund in my thinking, just accepting one syllabus after another and setting my shoulder to the wheel to get on and make it happen. The session was thrilling – here was a new take on what we should be doing and why. Here was the notion of cultural capital and I understood it immediately. Here was the idea that we need to enable our kids in a poor, deprived northern mill town to compete with the posh boys from the fee paying schools – although I should point out that some of them do already. I got that excited I got told off for not shutting up when David was talking! We left the session talking and have pretty much carried on ever since.

Add to that the fact that our KS3 curriculum – in common with pretty much every other school I suspect – was, well let’s be honest, shit and we were ripe for a good old kick start. So yes, we lament the loss of OMAM but we are not cast down. Quite the opposite. Last Friday we said goodbye to Year 11 and then the three of us plus the second in faculty sat down and sketched out our new curriculum. The night before we had seen the AQA spec (but were not allowed to copy it in any way) so we started by thinking about what texts we would do and then worked back to what KS3 needed to look like. For KS4 we chose Animal Farm, Christmas Carol and An Inspector Calls plus the relationship cluster of poetry, although it finally looked as though conflict might be a better choice so this may change.

Here is our rationale: Animal Farm’s quality goes without saying and it has big things to say and big questions to ask…and we didn’t like the others! Christmas Carol leads us into similar territory to OMAM. Dickens wrote to change society – the human condition writ large. The other choices did not inspire: Sherlock Holmes – oh please! Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre – fabulous but we deal with a mixed constituency and there are only so many hours in the day! Frankenstein, meh; Jekyll and Hyde? I set Treasure Island on my EBACC list and then read it. God it was awful! An Inspector Calls represents a small island of familiarity in a sea of change. Everyone needs something to hang on to.

We then worked back and asked ourselves the question: If that’s what they have to do at KS4 then what does KS3 need to do to prepare them for that? So we created 9 blocks with titles such as Roots of Language, Rhetoric, Biography, Ideology and brainstormed ideas and texts we could put in each – influenced by what we’d heard from David D.* At the moment it’s scratty words on a piece of A3 paper but when it’s smartened up I’ll get permission and blog it for those who are interested.

So, I don’t believe a secretary of State should micro-manage the curriculum but I do welcome the exciting prospect of what we have created to raise the aspirations and standards for all our pupils. Sadly, I won’t be part of it as I hang up my chalk – with much reluctance and a heavy heart – next August. Such is life.

*That doesn’t mean I always agree with him or that he doesn’t get on my nerves sometimes!