School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences

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The Politics of the Canon: An exploration of the factors influencing teachers’ text choices for the new GCSE specification in English Literature

As English teachers in England are aware, the new GCSE specifications which will be examined for the first time in Summer 2017 mark a significant departure from previous practice in terms of curriculum and assessment.  Terminal, closed book examinations, the removal of controlled assessment and an increased emphasis on 19th Century writing, combined with changes to accountability measures, make for a challenging set of circumstances for English teachers.  I had long been interested in the debate about whether or not the canon of literature we teach is contingent upon societal, economic and political values, or whether it arises simply because of a texts’ aesthetic qualities.  When this debate is placed within the highly charged current educational context of Conservative reforms and austerity, interesting questions are raised about how teachers’ behaviours, values, priorities and decisions about what to teach are affected by these challenging circumstances.

In order to investigate these decisions during my Masters dissertation, I surveyed over 130 English teachers about their text choices for the new GCSE Literature Specification, as well as interviewing local Heads of Department.  Whilst the question of which texts we teach may be seen primarily as one about the academic and cultural value of one text over another, pragmatic challenges faced by schools mean that the curriculum may be devised more as a result of practical factors such as the availability of texts, logistical expediency, budgetary demands and time constraints as well as finding texts which are seen as engaging and relevant to our students.  All of these factors emerged as significant for teachers when making curricular and pedagogic decisions, but what was arguably more interesting were tropes in the language which teachers used to describe their decision making in light of curricular reform.

Click here to read more of Anne Clough's blog.

published on: 5 May 2017