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Teacher battles book ban
Updated 11:27am Saturday 31st May 2014 in News
AN ENGLISH teacher’s battle against changes to GCSE guidelines has been backed by more than 56,000 people.
Larkmead School’s Mary Stevens’ online petition to retain American classic novels on the English Literature syllabus has been supported by both Phillip Pullman and Colin Dexter, as well as people as far away as Australia.
Education Secretary Michael Gove reportedly made calls to take classic US novels off the GCSE curriculum this week.
Examination boards OCR and AQA have now dropped popular American literature from their syllabus plans.
Mrs Stevens was so angry she launched her own online campaign against Mr Gove.
The Abingdon mother-of-two said: “I think it is going to make life very difficult for us.
“It means that we are going to have to be teaching a lot of very old stuff which means we won’t be able to have time to teach more modern books.
"My worry is that it will put off a lot of kids who struggle with their reading. It is going to disadvantage kids who come from backgrounds where they’re not encouraged to read.”
Worried her students would suffer due to the changes, Mrs Stevens decided to embark upon a one-woman battle against the politician five days ago.
The 42-year-old, of The Spinney, Abingdon, said: “I truly believe that the person to judge what to teach in class is the teacher who takes the class.
“If these sorts of changes are being made then they should be made in consultation with teachers who are going to teach it.
“Michael Gove thinks it is a good idea and therefore it is going to happen.
“I wish he would come and talk to the students who have a real hatred of reading.”
Mrs Stevens said students would be discouraged by the complicated language of British novelists Charles Dickens and Jane Austen.
She said: “Students are not having enough time to really develop their reading skills and there should be plenty of flexibility for teachers to choose what to teach.
“It is going to disadvantage kids who come from backgrounds where they’re not encouraged to read.
“It is really important to me because I have to sit down with these students and help them understand what is in front of them. So it’s really real for me.”
Mrs Stevens graduated from Oxford University in 1993 with a Bachelors degree in history before completing her PGCE there.
She later attended Oxford Brookes Univeristy, where she studied for a masters in Language and Literature, graduating in 2001.
Mrs Stevens also worked as a history teacher in Surrey and a martial arts instructor with Oxford School of Martial Arts before joining Larkmead School last year.
The Department for Education yesterday denied any American literature had been banned and said reforms published were merely the minimum pupils were expected to learn.
Didcot and Wantage MP, Ed Vaizey, said: “Before this Government came to power, English Literature GCSEs were not rigorous enough and their content was often far too narrow.
“The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has made is absolutely clear that the new subject content for English Literature GCSE doesn't ban any authors, books or genres.”
The petition started by Mrs Setevns, mother to Jacob, 16, and Charlotte, 14, has also gathered interest from Cumnor-based writer Philip Pullman, who said he would be supporting the campaign.
Author Phillip Pullman
He added: “Let the teacher choose themselves, that’s what I feel. Stand back and let them do their job.”
Oxford-based Inspector Morse novelist Colin Dexter said: “I don’t think it’s very much to do with the nationality of the writer, it is more to do with the quality of the writing.
“I do think the secret to why you enjoy your reading is very much a question of the enthusiasm of the teacher, even more than the quality of the prose or the poetry.”
President of teachers’ union NASUWT, Geoff Branner, from Witney, said he signed the petition earlier in the week, adding: “I do not actually trust the politicians to decide what should be taught to the children of our country.
“Teachers are brilliant at making up for the mistakes of the politicians. We have had to do it for the last 30 years or more.”
But not all were supportive of the online campaign.
Oxfordshire County Council member for education Melinda Tilley said she believes there is a campaign against the Education Secretary.
She added: “I think he is trying to toughen up the exam and I think that’s a good thing.
“But I think it is quite clear that he does not ban anything.”
Changes to the English Literature GCSE framework were published by the Department for Education in December last year.
Currently, students are required to study poetry, prose and drama including texts from different cultures and traditions, contemporary writers and the English, Welsh or Irish literary heritage.
They are also required to study one Shakespearean play. The new framework is more specific and requires students to study at least one Shakespearean play, one nineteenth-century novel, a selection of poetry since 1789 and fiction or drama from the British Isles from 1914 onwards.
Unlike the current framework, the new GCSE examination will include questions on texts students have not previously read.
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