Posted on 09/06/2014

The Legend of English

Guest blog by Martin Jeeps, Head of English

It is an incredibly exciting time to be writing a new programme of study for English at Fulham Boys School. If developing a boy-friendly curriculum that is going to engage, inspire and stretch young people wasn’t a challenge enough, barely a week goes by without the content of the English curriculum making national headlines.

First it was the inclusion of Russell Brand in OCR’s English Language and Literature course. Now I’ve never read his Bookywook and I’ve got no intention of ordering 120 copies of it ready for September. But neither is anyone else. What is in OCR’s anthology is a transcript of Brand’s appearance on Newsnight, the purpose of which is to illustrate how spoken language has developed and how it is used in different contexts. Now that seems to me to be a pretty good premise for its inclusion. One of the things I want to impress upon the boys in our first term together is that the English Language is a constantly evolving entity, an untameable beast. It is no good putting your head in the sand and ignoring its development; it would be like ignoring the internet because you prefer pigeon post. A snobbish attitude towards the development of language is known as prescriptivism and it is an approach that I want our boys to be wary of. A prescriptive approach to the English Language would disapprove of my use of ‘but’ to begin the third sentence of this paragraph. But I did.

Then over half-term came the news that the proposed new GCSE English Literature specifications do not include the much-loved classics Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird. In the 10 years that I have been teaching them, only one of them hasn’t included a journey through Steinbeck’s classic tale of life in depression-era America. I love the book and so have the vast majority of the students I’ve had the privilege of sharing it with. However, it really is time for some other texts to take centre stage. While I was disappointed with the narrow range of texts offered across the different exam boards, I was encouraged by the presence of some books that can really appeal to boys. AQA’s list of 19th Century novels includes Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Frankenstein. Their more modern list includes playscripts of The History Boys and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Plenty of reasons to be cheerful if engaging, inspiring and stretching boys is our goal.

It is also important to remember that the GCSE specification lists are just the beginning of the literature that our boys will encounter in their time at Fulham Boys School. So we can’t do Of Mice and Men for GCSE? Then we’ll read it in year 9, alongside Animal Farm or Lord of the Flies. This is an opportunity to really raise the bar. And it’s not as if our students will be restricted to what they study in their English classroom. Our school will be one where literature transcends subject boundaries and where all teachers will discuss with boys the books that really enthuse them.

So I sit down again to look at the programme of study for September. At the moment it includes Chaucer, Dickens, Blake, Wordsworth and Shakespeare, to name just a handful. But we will be starting with a consideration of how language and literature have developed over time. ‘The Legend of English’ I’m calling it. From the early beginnings of narrative such as Beowulf to the origins of the word twerk (it’s where Yorkshire folk go between 9 and 5 every day by the way). Let me know what you think should be part of our new curriculum. There is no such thing as what should not be on there. I’m off to read some Chaucer in the bath.

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