English: why the discipline may not be 'too big to fail'

Robert Eaglestone and Simon Kövesi ponder the problems that could sink the subject

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Proposed GCSE reforms could have a catastrophic knock-on effect on the numbers of students doing English at A level, and for higher education entry

English, the biggest discipline in the arts and humanities, is beset by some of the roughest storms in its history – and, unlike some other subjects, it is almost totally unprepared. The ship is holed, the sails are ripped and yet the sailors – usually known for their loud dispute, critique and dialogue – are inert and silent.

English has always been intellectually dis-united. It has no common methodology, no shared aims. While from the outside people assume they know what English is (reading, thinking and writing about literature), those of us within the subject spend ages agonising about what and who we are. We’ve had theory wars and culture wars; we’ve fought over the canon, gender, race, genre, language, history and class; we’ve had Oedipal spats with drama academics (they left, mostly) and creative writers (they’re staying, mostly). And the truth is, literary critics like intellectual crises. We live for them, in fact.

But the looming disasters and blowing gales are not intellectual ones. They are of the less flashy, more workaday variety, and extend way beyond the usual academic concerns. Before we list them, let’s see why English is so woefully under-prepared.

The subject’s intellectual disagreements are compounded by ingrained disciplinary sub-divisions: Victorianists, Shakespeareans, medievalists, Modernists and so on have their own courses, conferences and journals. They rarely talk to each other and can sometimes be hostile (as in: “How come Shakespeareans get all the grants?”). There is not even much shared teaching in most institutions. To the amazement of publishers, other academics and new postgraduates, there is no central online forum or body to act as a “clearing house” for conference calls, new books, announcements and papers.

More crucially, there is a huge, rarely crossed divide between English at secondary school level and English in higher education. While physics teachers in the schools sector are served by the Institute of Physics and history teachers by the Historical Association, which regard them as being on a continuum with university colleagues and lobby for their disciplines as a whole, many teachers of English in secondary schools feel cut off from academic English. Perhaps this is the core of the problem: there is no unified national voice for English. It’s not so much that there are no such disciplinary bodies but that there are instead too many, with a bewildering array of acronyms, complex histories and half-forgotten animosities.

There is the English Association, the National Association for the Teaching of English, the Council for College and University English (CCUE), the United Kingdom Literacy Association, the National Association of Advisers in English and the National Association of Writers in Education. Some serve slightly different constituencies but, for anyone within the subject, there is a confusing overlap of role and remit. A small unified body, the Common English Forum, brings some of them together, meets in an ad hoc way and offers some potentially useful links, but that’s it. In good times, having so many bodies and such a divided discipline might not be a problem: it might, instead, reflect a thriving array of variegated interests and a dynamic, capacious subject. But we are not in good times, for education or for English. Between them, these bodies are falling short of the support and attention the subject sorely needs, in a wide variety of areas.

The first is GCSE reform. The reforms currently proposed will abolish the current three qualifications (language, literature and a joint qualification) and create a new compulsory GCSE in English language and an optional GCSE in English literature. The new English language GCSE will be very different: focusing on communication in many forms, it will strip out most of the literature and look very like “composition” in the American system. The proposed reforms will also create a new heavier and more challenging GCSE in English literature. However, and this is the central issue, this will not be part of the reformed English Baccalaureate (the performance measure of schools based on the percentage of students who obtain a C or better in a series of core subjects: English language, mathematics, two sciences, a foreign language and history or geography). Moreover, it is not proposed to be among the “high-value” subjects – in addition to the compulsory English and maths – that will count towards demanding new “floor standards” in the scoring on which school league tables are based. The Department for Education has tried to incentivise schools to take literature by allowing the English language scores of those who take it to be given a double weighting, but many schools, quite justifiably aiming to play the system, may still react by dropping English literature and concentrating on easier subjects. This would have a catastrophic knock-on effect for the numbers of students doing English at A level, and so for higher education entry. This is in addition to the 18 per cent drop in take-up of GCSE English literature between the 2005-06 and 2011-12 academic years, according to official figures. We know that the watershed moment for the current perilous state of modern languages came in 2004, when languages became optional at GCSE. This moment is now being repeated for English literature.

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