A-level reform: A brief introduction

The introduction of Curriculum 2000 was the result of a long period of debate about post-compulsory education in England and Wales. The changes it implemented were intended to broaden the post-16 curriculum and increase the number of students choosing to stay on after GCSE. The main focus of its attention was the A-level, a qualification intro- duced in the 1950s and aimed then at the small proportion of students who intended to go on to university. The expansion in degree level provision (and the intention of the Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to bring about a further increase in the number of 18–30 year olds in higher education) meant that an exam originally aimed at 10 per cent of the school-leaving population was no longer appropriate for the majority of post-16 students: the traditional three-subject A-level model was also felt to be too narrow and specialised. Curriculum 2000 would replace this three-subject model with a four- or five-subject structure that would allow students to maintain greater breadth.13 Each subject would be divided into six units, and three of these units would be examined at the end of the Lower Sixth, giving the student a qualification at Advanced Subsidiary (AS) level. In the following year, students would be allowed to specialise, pursuing three of their original subjects and sitting exams in the remaining three units at a level known as A2. Marks for both AS and A2 would be aggregated to make up the student’s final A-level grade. Terminology would also change: A-levels would now be called ‘Advanced GCEs’ and syllabuses would be referred to as ‘specifications’, although in practice, only the latter would be adopted with any consistency. The introduction of these changes was to prove problematic.

Workloads for both students and teachers would increase dramatically; the organ- isation of an additional set of public examinations created difficulties for schools and awarding bodies; and many people complained that post-16 education had been reduced to a matter of examinations and league tables, leaving little time for genuine intellectual exploration. However, in English Literature, such concerns were accompanied by an additional set of uncertainties that related to the nature of the academic discipline that the new specifications enshrined. When the new A-level courses were made public, they appeared to represent not just the structural changes that applied to every subject, but also a set of philosophical changes as to what was to be considered valid and appropriate academic knowledge.

What appeared to be taking place was a revision of the activity of literary criticism. It was this revision that led Peter Buckroyd, of the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board, to warn teachers that their best candidates would fail if schools continued to teach English in ‘conventional’ ways: it seemed that the ‘new’ English was to be nothing short of revolutionary.14 At first glance, the new specifications seemed to be based on a relatively conservative canon. At AS level, students would cover a minimum of four texts, including a play by Shakespeare and at least one other text published before 1900. These would be supplemented at A2 by at least four further texts, including one published before 1770 and one before 1900. All texts should have been originally written in English, and all ‘should be of sufficient substance and quality to merit serious consideration’.15 The difference that Buckroyd alluded to – a difference that would lead students to fail if they were taught in ‘conventional’ ways – lay instead in the way in which these texts were to be approached. The new specifications were to be underpinned by five Assessment Objectives (AOs): these objectives would be applied (with varying levels of emphasis) to the assessment of all six units, and would therefore dictate the manner in which individual set texts would need to be taught and studied.

The first three AOs were relatively uncontentious, relating to the student’s capacity to structure written arguments, respond to texts of different types and periods, and analyse the ways in which meanings are shaped by language, form and structure. AOs 4 and 5, however, were to prove more controversial. These specified that students should be able to analyse the contexts in which texts were written and interpreted, making judgements that were ‘informed by different interpretations of literary texts by other readers’ and evaluating ‘the significance of cultural, historical and other contextual influences on literary texts and study’.16 In this new version of the subject, students would have to learn about ‘the importance of cultural and historical influences on texts and the relevance of the author’s life and his/her other works’; ‘the significance of literary traditions, periods and move- ments in relation to texts studied’; and ‘the ways in which texts have been interpreted and valued by different readers at different times, acknowledging that the interpretation of literary texts can depend on a reader ’s assumptions and stance’.

17  Some of the principles that underpinned the new specifications had actually been present in A-level syllabuses for some years. Even before Curriculum 2000, candidates had been expected to show ‘knowledge of the contexts in which literary works are written and understood’ and ‘an ability to discuss their own and other readers’ interpretations of texts’.18 Indeed, Jenny Stevens, a teacher of English at Godolphin and Latymer School in London, pointed out that ‘nothing in the pre-2000 syllabuses […] prevented us from trying out the textual approaches needed to fulfil the now famous AO4 and AO5’:19 a common point made at support meetings for the new specifications was that it is difficult to teach texts at A-level without setting them in context, whatever the focus of assessment might be. Yet the new subject criteria for English also reflected a belief that the theorisation of the A-level syllabus – in a manner that was much more rigorous and insistent than what had gone before – was essential if students were to make a smooth transition to the study of English at degree level. Robert Eaglestone, a key voice in the attempt to increase awareness of literary theory in schools, stated that ‘“theoretical” ideas and questions now generally taken for granted in HE have been very slow to influence A-level […] A-level is very far from matching – in an appropriate way – the shape of the discipline in HE […] However the new [specifications] do seem to have been designed to begin to bridge this gap.’20 This attempt to rewrite what it meant to study English Literature at A-level offers obvious parallels with my study of the process of discipline- formation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the shape of academic English was being disputed and defined. In stating that students would need to show an awareness of different interpreta- tions of texts by other readers, and of cultural, historical and other contextual influences, QCA appeared to be calling for an increased level of specialisation, giving the study of English a body of knowledge that drew on other disciplines (specifically, history) for its authority, and could be examined in objective terms.

The objections to this call – from teachers who believed that an increased need for specialist knowledge would detract from the student’s personal communion with the text – reflected earlier attempts, by critics such as Pater, Bradley and Woolf, to reclaim criticism as a more personal activity that was beyond the reach of institutional methods and values. My study of these earlier processes and arguments therefore provides a context within which the reform of A-level English Literature can be interpreted. Consequently, the arguments raised by these reforms can be seen in terms of a much older set of debates about what the study of literature should involve.  The reform of A-level English also has a more recent set of contexts, relating to the place of English in schools and the political and educa- tional factors that have influenced its current forms. I have already mentioned the reactions of Brian Cox, Deborah Cameron and Peter Hollindale to the Conservative government’s interventions in the English curriculum in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and its demand for traditional texts and prescriptive grammar. Yet it would be misguided to assume that what the Government prescribes is uniformly and unquestioningly taught. For many years, debates about the teaching of English have pointed to the existence of a plurality of philosophical and pedagogical approaches rather than a single, dominant model. This reflects the multiplicity of roles English is expected to play.

The Bullock Report (A Language for Life: Report of the Committee of Inquiry) of 1975 identified three major functions of English: it fostered personal growth, provided children with skills of literacy and oracy and acted as an instrument of social change.21 In 1989, the Cox Report (English for Ages 5–16) distinguished between five possible models of the subject, which focus respectively on personal growth, cross-curricular needs, adult needs, cultural heritage and cultural analysis.22 More recently, Bethan Marshall has identified five broad categories of English teacher, to whom she has given the titles ‘Old Grammarians’, ‘Liberals’, ‘Technicians’, ‘Critical Dissenters’ and ‘Pragmatists’.23 It is worth looking at these different subject models and philosophies in more detail, since the conflict between them is at the root of many of the recent disagreements about the reform of A-level. The ‘conventional’ approach identified by Peter Buckroyd can, for example, be identified with Cox’s ‘cultural heritage’ model of English, a tradition that reaches back to Leavis, Arnold and the Newbolt Report of 1921 in its valorising of the civilising power of literature. Such an approach also overlaps with a philosophy of personal growth, involving methods of analysis and judgement which – in their emphasis on objectivity and disinter- estedness – were intended to foster a certain attitude of mind. Yet such growth is clearly determined by a particular set of values, often articu- lated through the kind of rhetoric that was used to promote the subject’s original liberal aims. The Newbolt Report, for example, recommended that the national language and literature should be used to encourage a sense of national pride, seeing the rise of organised labour movements and the resistance of literary culture as pointing to a ‘morbid condition of the body politic which if not taken in hand may be followed by lamentable consequences’.24 Meanwhile, in the current National Curriculum for English, personal growth is determined by a view of what it means to be an active citizen: one who can reflect on questions of right and wrong, work collaboratively and ‘participate fully in the wider world beyond school, in public life, and in decision making’.25 Personal growth is thus defined by a particular set of social objectives, with the English curriculum – and, specifically, the literary canon – being used as a means of inducting the individual into a certain kind of culture.

Over the last few decades, this ‘cultural heritage’ model of English has been challenged by two distinct movements that have aimed to foster personal growth through a deconstruction of the traditional canon. The first is a liberalism often identified with the 1960s and 1970s, founded on personal freedom and an authentication of pupils’ own experiences. Bethan Marshall sees this liberalism as having its roots in the philosophy of Edmond Holmes and John Dewey, and defines its central method as the use of English as a means of ‘exploring thoughts and emotions […and] promoting empathy, understanding and tolerance ’, using ‘the literature of social realism’ to explore issues close to students’ own concerns, and therefore prioritising content and ‘message’ over style and form.26 Such a curriculum might include the study of texts such as Barry Hines’s A Kestrel for a Knave, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, taught for their perceived relevance to pupils’ own lives and concerns and their insights into the nature of humanity and society.27 This liberal approach has often been felt to be particularly suitable for less academic pupils, allowing for an explora- tion of thought and feeling through texts that are used in appropriate, accessible ways. The progressivist work of David Holbrook, for example, used Shakespeare to provide a literary experience that would enable the child to discover his or her ‘authentic self’, concentrating on the pupil’s own experience of the text rather than any analytical process imposed by the teacher, the curriculum or any notion of ‘literary criticism’.28 The second challenge to ‘cultural heritage’ is a version of English that has been influenced by elements of critical theory, developing a view of English as an instrument of challenge and empowerment, and identifiable with both the Cox Report’s category of ‘cultural analysis’ and Marshall’s group of ‘critical dissenters’. This model of the subject is aligned with the political Left, especially in its opposition to the National Curriculum’s increasing emphasis of the English literary heritage, and has been given concrete form through the work of organisations such as the National Association for the Teaching of English. Paradoxically, this version of English offers to deconstruct the very discipline on which it is based. Nick Peim, one of the dissenting model’s supporters, states that ‘the identity of English has been and is founded on premises that are no longer viable’, with the National Curriculum in English ‘proposing quite specific values and beliefs […which] tend in general to devalue, or at least to exclude, the cultural experiences of most of its subjects’.

29 As a result, such a view places great emphasis on what is often referred to as ‘critical literacy’, legitimising students’ own knowledge and experiences and encouraging methods of reading ‘against the grain’. Its exponents have sought, in particular, to present literary criticism as a means of rejecting works as well as accepting them, allowing students ‘to decon- struct texts, knowingly to debunk the canon and find alternative texts that had been omitted’.30 The dissenting model’s emphasis of the student’s own experience is founded on a much more oppositional stance than that which underpins more liberal philosophies of personal growth. Bethan Marshall sees this model’s central feature as its awareness of ‘the political context and connotations’ of literature, an awareness that sets it apart from the liberal emphasis on the ‘personal level’ of the issues literature raises.31 To illus- trate this, Marshall cites the work of Peter Griffiths, whose English at the Core: Dialogue and Power in English Teaching (1992) argues that personal growth ‘has frequently (though not invariably) tended to be construed as individual in an atomistic sense […] What English teachers might profitably attempt to do is to work with a much more dialogic and social model of […] personal growth […] one which fully recognises the constraints of the institutional nexus of the school, the curriculum, and the State.’32 This radical approach is clearly motivated by a sense of unease about the values that traditional humanism (and its more aggres- sive political and institutional embodiment in the National Curriculum) have sought to advance.

Nevertheless, Jay Snow – himself a supporter of the radical model – has drawn attention to the fact that its goal of social transformation is itself informed by a very specific set of values that are by no means universal: ‘If the project of Arnold and Newbolt was to create a particular kind of society through the educational production of individuals as subjects, it is possible that critical literacy might involve a similar subjugation to “the overall goals of national reconstruction”.’33 In spite of these differences, what unites both the liberal and the radical models of English is their common opposition to the institutional and political authority invested in canonical texts, syllabuses and exam- inations, and the narratives that are used to justify their status. This opposition has drawn much criticism. The right-wing British journalist Melanie Phillips has denounced both models for their refusal to uphold established norms and values, citing such strategies as part of a relativist erosion of educational standards. Referring to a month-long seminar for English teachers held at Dartmouth College in America in 1966, Phillips states thatnot only did this meeting equate responses to literature with reaction to films, TV plays and the students’ own personal writings or spoken narratives, it also invited the reader to redefine the value of a text in the light of his or her own experience. The process was seen as an explicit means of challenging the forces of ‘powerful institutional centres’. Relative values were turning into a political weapon.34

For Phillips, the source of such atrocity was to be found in critical and cultural theory, which ‘provided the opportunity for cultural revolution- aries to claim that great literature was a means of political domination’:
Under the impact of a relentless cultural relativism, in which no absolute values could any longer be asserted, the whole aesthetic culture started to disintegrate. It wasn’t just the validity of language or teaching that came under fatal attack but the validity of the texts themselves. Intellectuals were no longer content to draw from classic texts the lessons of antiquity. In the modern spirit of individualistic hubris, they believed they could improve on them. So the literary canon was recreated, in accordance with the doctrine that creativity was the highest form of human activity, and to promote the ideologies of gender, race and class.35
Similar attacks also came from politicians and from those invested (despite their lack of specialist knowledge) with the responsibility for overseeing curricular development.36 Brian Cox’s account of the revisions of the National Curriculum that took place under the Conservative government of the late 1980s and early 1990s tells of how the National Curriculum Council’s view of literature was informed by a belief in the centrality of the canon and the danger of approaches that involved popular culture and a plurality of interpretations.

John Marks, one of the Committee’s sub-chairs and actually responsible for Mathematics, went so far as to claim that teachers of English were intent on rejecting Shakespeare and the classics, thus denying children ‘access to the riches of English literature and our cultural heritage’.37 Such beliefs, while based on exaggeration and prejudice, nevertheless exerted a powerful influence on educational policy, leading to the publication in 1993 of a revised version of the National Curriculum that sought to impose a narrow canon of prescribed reading and a belief that ‘there are fixed responses [to literary texts], which are either right or wrong’.38 For Cox, this represented an extremist response to the relativism of literary theory, and threatened to undermine the teaching of literature by imposing canonical texts on students at an age that was far too early. Cox himself upheld the opposing view that teachers should not ‘succumb to bardol- atry’ when teaching Shakespeare: ‘“Cultural analysis” of the values implied in his plays is an essential part of good English teaching.’39 The debates that Cox refers to focus on the curriculum followed by pupils from the age of five to sixteen, and make no reference to the teaching of English at A-level.

Nevertheless, arguments about the post-16 reforms have drawn on an equally diverse range of beliefs about the place of English in contemporary education, and the values it is felt to encode. The need to maintain the ‘gold standard’ of A-level has been challenged, for example, by the increasing importance of accessibility, especially in view of Curriculum 2000’s aim to increase the numbers of students staying on at school after GCSE: while this latter is not a subject- specific argument, it has been made more pointed in English by the anti-elitism of Marshall’s ‘critical dissenters’. In addition, the heritage- based approach of the National Curriculum has been balanced against a desire to bring A-level English closer to the developments in literary theory that have shaped the subject in higher education. The new specifications – based on a core laid down by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and interpreted in differing ways by the various examining bodies – were therefore shaped by a range of different philosophies, with their content and methods of assessment bearing the traces of both political conservatism and a number of rather more radical elements.

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