English Literature is under threat. Every year fewer and fewer students choose English for A-Level, with entries for the subject dropping by one fifth in the last three years, and falling by 13% in 2019 alone. This is indicative of a steady decline in the subject’s popularity since 2001, which has only accelerated in recent years. So what – or who – is to blame, and why does it matter? Many blame the government. Since 2014, the government has pushed STEM subjects (such as Maths and Sciences) to the forefront, with education secretary Nicky Morgan pronouncing that humanities are no longer “useful”. In an uncertain landscape filled with anxiety around Brexit and technology growth, students are directed towards vocational subject that they are told – by the government, teachers, parents – ensure greater job security. And yet countless employers express the necessity of skills promoted by the study of English; companies such as Google, Unilever, and Deloitte specifically demand communicative and creative skills in prospective employees, and the word ‘imaginative’ frequently appears in job requirements.
The problem is that English has lost touch with those values it needs to protect. A subject that should revel in communication and creativity has become a dull exercise in rote learning, according to teachers and students, and other critics. Michael Rosen, an English professor at UCL has called the syllabus “mechanical”, and Kate Clanchy – a poet, novelist, and teacher – has described the drainage of “fun” from the syllabus as “disastrous”. While the value of STEM subjects is rightly being championed, the value of English is being destroyed from within. Employers across a range of industries, such as Google, Unilever, and Deloitte’s, specifically demand communicative and creative skills in prospective employees. The argument for English being a useless indulgence is invalid. But beyond this, surely the simple joys of reading and of learning must be preserved, no matter their economic ‘use’. English is useful in the job sector so long as it fosters individuality and diversity, but remains valuable in its preservation of culture and of fun.
The syllabus is in need of a revamp. Despite Michael Gove’s reform of GCSE guidelines for 2017 exams onwards, the syllabus remains narrow. Exam boards give teachers the option to choose from around 6 texts in each of the two eras (modern and 19th century) – hardly a broad scope. A look at the AQA and OCR set texts reveals a complete lack of American literature (shocking, considering its pioneering of modern drama in particular), of black authors, and of any works published after 2011. In short, the modern is made to look alarmingly irrelevant. The arbitrary imposition of texts upon students excludes a wealth of English literature’s heritage, and risks alienating students who feel that these books have nothing to do with them. Such an approach attempts to force students to adhere to preconceived ideas rather than encourage them to form their own. They are taught what to like, without any regard for personal taste.
For English to remain relevant, students must feel that they can relate. Diversity cannot be ensured without – at the very least – a broadening of the syllabus. A broader range of options would allow teachers to select texts that they feel would interest their students. Writers from diverse backgrounds, presenting diverse experiences, must be represented in order to keep up with the current literary landscape – one that revels in the miscellaneous. Beyond this, the testing itself needs to change. Literature is first and foremost a mode of expression, a fact that is completely side-lined in examinations. In theory government and exam board guidelines promote ‘personal’ response, but in practice students are forced to rote learn quotations and themes in a way that suppresses any originality. There is a constant fear of the ‘tricky’ or ‘random’ question (students must pick from only two options), causing students to scramble to gather information in order to prevent themselves from being caught out.
Questions should offer opportunities for exploration rather than limiting them. Far from lowering the standard, giving students a variety of questions would instil a confidence that would allow them to make more sophisticated and interesting arguments. Surely we want our students to be inquisitive, to probe ideas and expand their potential. As it is, English will always struggle to compete against STEM subjects; but with a new, less restrictive syllabus, students will learn skills that will enrich their lives – both at home and at work.