Sunday Salon: Books and school

The Sunday Salon

I was going to do one of my “what I’ve been up to lately” posts today but then Michael Gove’s comments about the new GCSE curriculum were all over Twitter and I had to respond. I know that what Gove said (or is quoted as saying) does not accurately reflect the content of the new GCSE curriculum, it was just his own bizarre prejudices and ideas, but the man is the education secretary and sadly his words have consequence. So this is a riposte to him, not necessarily the curriculum.

I went to secondary school already loving books. Whether that was something innate in me or the influence of my parents and some or all of my primary school teachers I don’t know. But that’s why I survived five years of indifferent teaching of English lit and came out the other end as a lover of books. I would not be surprised if a lot of my former classmates don’t read as adults. We were not inspired to.

I should add for the record that my secondary school did have some great teachers – in history, maths and French I was very well served. And English language was handled well – I learned to debate, to write in different forms, especially creatively. But that cornerstone of education – reading books – was not handled in a way that inspired.

It can’t have all been about the choice of books. Because we did read some great books – Goodnight Mister Tom, Romeo and Juliet, Uncle Tom’s Cabin – but I can remember six books or plays that I studied in five years. That’s pretty poor. Is that the way the books were taught or the choice of books? I don’t know but I suspect it’s both.

Again, I was already a lover of books. My home was filled with books and I was encouraged to visit the library for more. My parents read and would recommend titles to me. I was given books and book vouchers for birthdays and Christmas. I was lucky. Many people don’t have that luck. For far too many children school represents all of their access to books, and that makes the books that are chosen to be taught – and the way they are taught – really really important.

At GCSE I studied A View from the Bridge, The Merchant of Venice, To Kill a Mockingbird, big cat poetry (including “Tyger, tyger, burning bright” and something about a caged animal in a zoo)…and that’s almost all I can tell you. There might have been a couple more novels, I’m not sure. I remember basically nothing about the first or last items on that list. We didn’t see A View from the Bridge or The Merchant of Venice performed, even on film. We did watch the film of To Kill a Mockingbird. In fact I remember the assignment was to compare and contrast book and film. Which was interesting and different but didn’t really touch on any of the key themes of that amazing book. I was convinced until I studied Shakespeare again at university that The Merchant of Venice was the dullest of all his plays.

Even at 15/16 it broke my heart that my English teacher was not inspiring me or my class, that I was not in love with each and every one of the books we studied. I know some people say that they learned to hate every book they studied at school but I maintain that’s not a natural outcome, it’s a result of the teacher and the choice of book. I would see friends in another English class with a different teacher filled with enthusiasm about their texts. I don’t know what limits were placed on the curriculum for my school in the 1990s and maybe my perception of that other class was wrong – perhaps all English teaching was constrained back then in just the way people fear it’s about to be again.

The thing I take from this is that teaching is hard and putting ill-thought-through reactionary limits on the books that can be taught to children at that crucial age is unhelpful. Declaring that all the books must be British is ridiculous – teenagers need to learn about the rest of the world too, if only to learn that it’s not all that different from the life we know, even when at first glance it’s completely different. And limiting the curriculum to pre-1900 is more than just ridiculous. When are we most sneering about boring old stuff? When do we most need to feel a connection to a world that is increasingly scary and full of big life-changing decisions? And yet when are we most receptive to big new ideas? This is when we should be exposed to science fiction, foreign fiction, the politics of gender, race and, well, politics in general.

So what saved my love of reading? I left that school and went elsewhere for my A-levels. It was a great decision because it led me to a great teacher. Linda picked a varied reading list for us but equally importantly she overflowed with enthusiasm for those books. (In fact, sometimes we mocked her a little for her exuberance but we loved her for it really.)

My A-level copy of Frankenstein. Click to enlarge if you want to read my notes!

Not only can I tell you what books I read for A-level but I still have my copies of all of them and I can remember what they were about and what they taught me. We went to see both plays we studied – Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and David Hare’s Murmuring Judges – performed on stage (Linda had made sure this would be possible before picking them for us), which showed me that sometimes humour needs to be spoken aloud to be funny. Penelope Lively’s memoir Oleander Jacaranda made me yearn to go to Egypt, even though I knew I would, like Lively, never know what it was to be Egyptian. (In fact, my first foreign holiday that I paid for and arranged by myself was indeed to Egypt.) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein filled my passionate heart with dramatic images of snowy mountains and Arctic tundra and also, in Shelley, gave me a heroine to admire. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart showed me a completely alien yet still relatable way of life and taught me to question colonialism and Christianity. But in some ways Henry James’s Washington Square was the real turnaround. I did not like that book, I found it tedious, but Linda still taught me to appreciate it. She used it to teach us about irony and sarcasm, and about the changing role of women in society.

I owe Linda so much. If I had continued with those teachers and book lists I’d had at secondary school I probably wouldn’t have studied English at university. I might not have continued to love reading at all (though I think – hope – that that’s unlikely). Reading is a huge and joyous part of my life still now, 17 years after I left that school, 15 years after Linda hugged me goodbye on A-level results day.

So I want to say thank you to the teachers who are putting their all into encouraging children to not only read, but to enjoy reading, to appreciate books. And to those teachers who aren’t inspired or inspiring? Please don’t give up or become complacent. Please keep trying. What you do is SO important. And definitely ignore that Mr Gove. He’s an idiot. But you knew that.