The following letter is my response to the one I received and posted on this site yesterday from a representative of Nicky Morgan. He works as a civil servant in the Ministerial And [sic] Public Communication Division, which sounds like a euphemism for a Ministry of Misinformation. The letter certainly fulfilled that cynical purpose.
I recognise my response could be called naive and a rant. I would reject both claims. I know only too well my response is likely to be ignored completely: this will be the following stage on from the letter itself which ‘responded’ but studiously ignored specific points made – they will simply cease any more ‘communication’. I don’t believe it is a rant, though it is impassioned, but I would like to think there is a coherence to my argument, as well as truth. I have had 20+ years of such experience directly with Education Secretaries, their civil servant lapdogs, other politicians and other leaders of various government institutions: responses which deflected from any direct answering/dealing with queries, or just ignored. But I can’t quite stop myself from fighting against the barbarians. At times I know there is a risk that can be a pedantic cause, but in this case it is challenging Gove’s original and significant untruth about the situation as well as the subsequent mere parroting of that deception.
As a final preamble, I watched last night’s episode of The Good Wife where Alicia Florrick is being tutored in the art of politicking as she runs for State’s Attorney. In one scene she is being rehearsed to deal with with probable tough questions from an imminent interview with a TV legal commentator Frank Prady. A sample question is put to her and she begins answering before being stopped immediately by her professional coach. I can’t remember his exact words, but he explains that she should never actually answer a question. All questions should instead be ignored and she should alternatively persist with whatever ‘party’ line she has been given. I know this is hardly apocalyptic, and we see similar blatant evasion every day from our real politicians, but it struck a chord with me last night in the way it completely characterised the letter I had received: not a single specific query of mine addressed, but instead the total disconnection in the unfolding of and persistence with the ‘party’ line.
Thank you for your letter of the 10th March in reply to mine to Nicky Morgan of the 7th February. Whilst I have to accept your explanation that the Secretary of State was too busy to reply herself, I do wonder if she would actually fully support the ignorance and affront of your response sent on her behalf.
My first point is to state how astonished I am by your complete regurgitation of the narrative that ‘no authors, books or genres have been banned’ which I had taken such care to unpick and challenge. You ignored completely my analysis of the effective banning of – let me be precise again – American authors from being studied and examined at GCSE, hardly a nuance of interpretation and one I think deserved a direct addressing. In every other respect your letter simply repeats all those previous dodges and defenses that Michael Gove had presented himself, and which I was querying.
I will re-present my precise query to Nicky Morgan in the hope she will respond herself. In support of this I will be drawing to her attention, and to others more widely, your personal assertion ‘Parents will rightly expect their children to read more than four pieces of literature over two years of studying for their GCSEs’. This is a preposterous observation. It exemplifies the most staggering lack of understanding of facts, let alone the realities of at least the last two decades of such similar study. This daft obfuscation is compounded – though it would seem impossible – by the comment ‘as they will in future be tested on unseen texts which can be by authors outside the exam board specification’ which does not in any way relate to the study and examination of American prose and drama authors which is, of course, the specific detail of my query.
I need to unpick things again for you, though I am really doing so for Nicky Morgan and those others. Firstly, from which deep pocket of not-knowing do you pull the comment on perceived parent expectations? As an English teacher of 30 years and a GCSE English Literature senior examiner of 28 years I know of no clamor from parents about a need for students to study more than four texts for their GCSE examination [one of these including a significant number of poems]. In addition I am unaware of any similar clamor about this number from Government sources over that time, from HMI, from Ofsted, from Ofqual, from school governors, from business, from professional education bodies and so on. As these four texts/areas of study have been the status quo for such a long time, from where have you extrapolated your assertion to use as such a key plank of defense [a defense which is again NOT addressing my key query about the effective banning of American authors]?
To put this in a wider context, that throwaway comment of yours that ‘Parents will rightly expect….GCSEs’ is absurd. In their study of both GCSE English Language and Literature, students will encounter, engage with and study a significantly wider range of texts, and not just literary as that range will necessarily embrace a huge spectrum of non-literary texts. The even wider context is that the two years of GCSE study will include all of the students’ other subjects and content, including countless texts! This is such an obvious point it seems silly to mention, but your assertion has mischievously ignored that context. Or you really are hopelessly unaware.
Secondly, and quickly, the study of four texts/areas for the purpose of being examined on these requires far more than reading, and yet that is the word you use: ‘…read more than’. The teaching of a text for study and examination is a detailed and highly structured preparation that includes far more than reading: there is analysis, exploration, revisiting, stepped written work on themes, characters, meanings and much more, plus the actual exam practice of writing for an examination, all of which is, quite rightly, time-consuming. Failing to acknowledge that significantly wider context – just for English Literature – is, as I have said, mischievous. And I am being polite.
Thirdly, you make another meaningless observation. You refer to ‘…as they will in future be tested on unseen texts which can be by authors outside of the exam board specification’. This is meaningless because it has no bearing on my precise argument that American authors have effectively been banned. The unseen texts refers to the unseen poetry text/s [one for AQA and OCR; two for Pearson] that will be set in the examination for the response to the study of poetry. The phrase ‘in the future’ is a further irrelevance because that is the situation now and has been the status quo for some time, so yet again your not-knowing is staggering and also therefore insulting when presented as an explanation.
It then becomes an absolute certainty that you are utterly out of your depth when you suggest that books such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men can be studied by 11-14 year olds as the ‘seminal world literature’ they should be accessing at this age. Would this, by following the logic of your previous judgments, also include The Crucible? I ask because these long-standing, traditional GCSE texts have been chosen precisely for that age range considering their themes, language, content and other factors and I am intrigued as to how you would suddenly judge them as now equally appropriate for a significantly younger age and level of maturity.
In conclusion, it is shamefully evident that you have ignored my precise query to Nicky Morgan and instead read through the English Literature subject content and assessment objectives document for teaching from 2015 and simply and sheepishly lifted in chronological order statements from that to offer as a formulaic, ‘hymn-book’ response. This is exactly the same cut-and-paste regurgitation my MP Hugo Swire undertook when he too could not find an actual answer to my specific query. The final insult in your letter was to refer me to that very document. I trust it is clear that I know it thoroughly. It is as clear as your complete lack of knowing and understanding what it actually means.