Rajvi Glasbrook Griffiths on how cultural literacy is one of the most powerful modes of social mobility and progress, and the arts are an undeniable resource
Poet Patrick Jones has recently spoken about his son’s comprehensive school, where only the ‘higher’ English sets have been entered to take the GCSE English Literature exams this year, leaving nearly two-thirds of the school’s pupils without the opportunity. In Wales, English Literature is not a statutory qualification.
Under the scrutiny of the media, parents, challenge advisors, Estyn and a very public colour-rating system, schools are under enormous pressure to ‘get results’ – 5 GCSEs at A*-C. The devaluing of English Literature provides schools a means by which to raise their numbers. If the fifth GCSE can be something perhaps less challenging than English Literature, it raises pass percentages. It may show a rise in the ‘free school meal’ pupil pass rate; it may even aid the school in a move from one colour rating to the next. Nationally, schools in Wales can be reported as improving. Kirsty Williams can proclaim that the deprivation attainment gap is reducing, and so a key Welsh Government educational priority is being met. Such is the power of data without context and moving goalposts. It would an acceptable strategy if only:
- reading literature was not fundamental to the development of language and communication as a whole
- the deprivation gap was one solved by GCSE exam results alone
There are few educational goalposts less unethical in the moving. Exposure to typical GCSE set texts like ‘Of Mice and Men’ or ‘Macbeth’ are, for many, the first foray into a world beyond their immediate. At the very least, reading these books opens new places and ways of thinking, brings awareness of the power of language, and begins the decoding of big questions: why people are like they are and why events may happen as they do.
Arguably, the prescribed range on the Literacy Framework includes a study of rich texts, but this does not factor in the demands of the English Language GCSE syllabus; nor are newspaper articles and persuasive advertisements the equivalent of enduring literary classics of historical and cultural importance. Cultural literacy is one of the most powerful modes of social mobility and progress, and the arts are an undeniable resource. Removing universal access to literature from those pupils who may need it most with the short-term aim of bagging a secure GCSE is elitism. It is, by its very nature, a widener of the deprivation gap, as opposed to a narrower. It is not a leap in logic to anticipate that children growing up in homes without books will be less likely to choose English Literature as a qualification, given the option. It is a decision that takes away something from those who may, through their schooling, need it most.
Literature is not solely a means to social mobility either. It is infinitely more vital. The Big Issue’s Why Books Matter campaign has a clear message: ‘We know literacy is key. Without reading skills, doors close and futures become darker.’ Literature gives language an intellectual, emotional, social, context-transcending home. It gives human beings an internal life, and resources of a nature that, although immeasurable, may be a lifeline. No research could provide certain data on when, how and where someone, whether they passed their GCSEs or not, may pick up a book and find peace, voice or salvation through it. The words of Aaron Morgan, 29, currently homeless and living on the streets of Cardiff in the Western Mail (27.2.17) are as potent as they are resonant: ‘For a lot of people a book is just a story, it’s just a thing to do to keep them entertained. Well for me it is more than that. Each book is 20 hours of distraction, 20 hours where I don’t have to think about where I am or how I got here. It’s time I can be somewhere, anywhere.’
Campaigns against exam boards withdrawing A-Level Art History, the Classics and Archaeology gained significantly strong support in England recently, with strong arguments about academic access to the arts, cultural literacy and, above all, the most important educational tenet of all, equality of chance. So powerful was the Courtauld Institute backed campaign that indeed the decision was reversed and A Level Art History saved. In Wales, the impact of this triumph was precisely nil since, here, these subjects have been done away with for some time now. The demotion of GCSE English Literature by schools cannot be allowed to pass as noiselessly. It is a short-term-gain driven measure that misses entirely the inseparable connections between literature, language and society. A loud shame for a nation once celebrated for its poetry and bardic tradition.
No politician or teacher enters their profession to reduce standards and make things worse. Yet we regularly exist within flawed structures and pressures of our own making, in which the purpose of education and equity can become confused. Without pause for reflection, to assess priorities, and challenge decisions such as these, expectations are lowered and purpose is lost.