Thursday, 30 April 2009

Whither English Literature?

It's being reported this week that fewer students are sitting GCSE English literature these days. Google Reader's one-line summary of the BBC Education website claims, rather alarmingly, that 'More than one in four teenagers in England do not sit English literature, sending the subject into decline, figures suggest'. (I also infer from the report that English language skills may be a bit shaky, even at the BBC, but that's by the way.)

Three in four students still sitting English literature doesn't necessarily indicate a subject in decline to me, so I looked at the figures. Apparently numbers of students taking English literature in maintained schools fell from 481,440 in 2003 to 472,575 in 2008, while the equivalent numbers at independent schools rose from 35,458 to 38,933 during the same period. Unhelpfully, however, the BBC report doesn't attempt to relate these figures to the size of the academic cohort as a whole. In the equivalent article in The Guardian, however, the 'decline' is represented as a fall from 77% to 72% of state school pupils over five years.

It seems clear enough that numbers have fallen, but whether this really means that English lit. is 'a subject in decline' is another matter. On closer examination, the phrase 'a subject in decline' proves to be a direct quote from Michael Gove, the Conservatives' Education spokesman, who of course has a vested interest in letting it be thought that schools and education are being badly managed.

I have a vested interest too, of course, since if English literature really is in decline in schools I'll need to worry for my job. I don't see the current story as being grounds for anxiety just yet, but in the short term I'm rather more concerned about the issue highlighted at the end of the BBC report: the claim by Mary Bousted of the ATL that the school system is encouraging a drift towards 'literacy' rather than reading, as well as the tendency for students to read extracts rather than whole books. This, I think, is much more of a threat to English literature at university level, and in the view of many it is already having an effect on course design and assessment strategies within universities. I also, frankly, think it is impoverishing for students themselves not to be encouraged to read attentively, pleasurably and voraciously.

Reading is fun. It's also, even in today's image-driven world, an important life-skill: and one that you won't get good at unless you practise.


  1. Perhaps lazy journalists who simply take stories wholesale from political parties are sending their own profession 'into decline'...

  2. Yes. Nick Davies' Flat Earth News is very informative on just how lazy most journalism -- even that of supposedly reputable outlets like the broadsheets and the BBC -- is nowadays: e.g. how reliant on press releases from interested parties. I don't buy all of Davies' arguments -- his own book isn't exactly a model of disinterested reporting -- but I accept enough to find the current state of the media pretty dispiriting. This story is a good example of what he's complaining about.

  3. The Saturday Guardian included an interesting letter in response to the 'subject in decline' story. The correspondent is a teacher in Tower Hamlets.