Thursday, January 08, 2009

Michael Palin replaces Alexander Pope in Britain's English lessons

Authors from an earlier age give a view of a different world and hence highlight different values. Losing that is to lose perspective on the follies of the modern world

They are the writers who have inspired generations of schoolchildren. But now such literary greats as Coleridge, Shelley and Browning have disappeared from school exams to be replaced by more modern writers like Hornby (Nick) and Palin (Michael). Dead poets and authors who are central figures in the canon of English literature are no longer being featured in GCSE papers, according to new research by Cambridge Assessment, the school examinations arm of Cambridge University. And as they lose their place in exam syllabuses to more contemporary text, their study is dying out in schools.

The analysis of GCSE papers and predecessor qualifications at ten year intervals, from the 1870s through to the present day, revealed that a number of literary greats have endured, such as William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott and Thomas Hardy. However, others, from Alexander Pope to Jonathan Swift, have fallen out of fashion. Even Geoffrey Chaucer, described as the "father of English literature", had not appeared in the last two sample papers from 1997 and 2007.

Researchers found a general trend towards more contemporary authors. In the 1950s, for instance, it was common for pupils to study writers who had been born well over 200 years earlier. In modern papers, this time lag had been cut by half. "Overall it is possible to see that the exam specifications show increasing modernity," the study said. "More recently there has been a tendency to include a broader view of literature along side 'literary greats'."

Susan Hill, the award-winning author, said the pendulum had swung too far in the "modern direction". "Iris Murdock once told me that school students should not be studying her novels, they should only read the classics, the great Victorians, the major poets - in other words, the dead," said Ms Hill, whose novel I'm the King of the Castle, has featured in GCSE syllabuses. "I am sure that the brightest should indeed be studying the canon, as well as some modern writers - the key words being 'as well'. "At GCSE, the emphasis is almost wholly on modern writers, at A-level slightly less so, but the pendulum has still swung far in the modern direction over the last few decades."

Ms Hill said too many teachers took the easy option when a choice was offered in GCSE courses because they were afraid of pupils being bored or that older work would not be considered "relevant" to pupils today. "Once it was 'Hamlet or King Lear', now it is 'the poems of Wordsworth or Carol Ann Duffy' - and it is easier to teach Duffy than Wordsworth, I'm the King of the Castle than Wuthering Heights," she said.

A shake-up of GCSEs four years ago introduced non-fiction to English literature courses in an attempt to entice teenagers, especially boys, to read more. Nick Hornby's autobiographical book about being an Arsenal supporter, Fever Pitch, and TV travel presenter Michael Palin's bestseller Pole to Pole, have since featured on syllabuses. Thousands of pupils can also now sit an English language GCSE which they able to pass without studying any plays, poetry or classic novels. Other modern authors now studied are Frank McCourt, Penelope Lively and Janni Howker.

Professor Alan Smithers, the director of the centre for education and employment research at Buckingham University, said: "We want young people to study works which illuminate the human condition. This tends to be true of works that have stood the test of time which are perhaps in a better position than more recent authors who could turn out to be a fad."

A spokesman for Cambridge Assessment said the study could not be used to provide a commentary on exam standards over time. Exams have changed because at the turn of the 20th century, only a tiny proportion of 16-year-olds sat the School Certificate, whereas the vast majority are now entered for GCSE. As a consequence, exam papers had to be more assessable, he said. "Modern questions must be worded in such a way that all students being targeted can make some attempt at answering," he said. "The target candidature of past questions, particularly those from the earliest years sampled, was undoubtedly very different."

The study also found that earlier question papers required a much closer knowledge and memory of the poetry and novels studied. For example every paper between 1877 and 1937 required candidates to quote verbatim from memory substantial sections of the prescribed text. Later papers give more emphasis to the candidate's own response to the work, for instance asking which character students "feel most sympathy for". There is also greater discussion of the overall meaning or themes of a text.

OUT: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Browning, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith

IN: Nick Hornby, Michael Palin, Frank McCourt, Penelope Lively, Janni Howker, Carol Ann Duffy


Poorer pupils are falling farther behind, say British Tories

The British Labour party is committed to lifting up the poor but their addled policies (such as attacks on selective schools) have the opposite effect

Poorer pupils appear to be falling farther behind their middle-class contemporaries as better-off families increasingly colonise the best state secondary schools.

An analysis by the Conservatives of government data shows the achievement divide between rich and poor schools to have risen by two percentage points within a year, despite the resources directed at reducing it. The proportion of teenagers achieving five good GCSEs including English and maths in schools where more than half of pupils are eligible for free school meals fell from 14 to 13 per cent between 2006 and 2007. At schools where fewer than a tenth of pupils are eligible, the proportion rose from 57 per cent to 58 per cent.

Michael Gove, the Shadow Children's Secretary, said that the system favoured those fortunate or rich enough, to live in areas with good state schools. The Tories plan to allow good new schools to open in deprived areas, with extra cash for children from poor homes.


Philadelphia libraries to become 'learning centers'

Nutty Nutter again: Who needs those silly old books?

As library supporters booed Mayor Nutter and called him a "liar" at City Hall yesterday, he announced that with outside financial help, the city plans to transform the 11 library buildings slated to close after tomorrow into "knowledge centers." Appearing unfazed by the catcalls, Nutter - flanked by staff and supporters that included four members of City Council - pledged that free computer access will be at the heart of the new public centers.

The city will lease the buildings to the new operators, which include community groups, foundations, corporations and others that would provide funding and staffing for the facilities, Nutter said. Five organizations already have offered to create programs, and as soon as all 11 sites are spoken for, Nutter said, details about the services that the centers are to provide will be made public.

Shutting the libraries will save $8 million a year and $40 million over five years, city officials have said. The move is part of the effort to make up what is estimated to be at least a $1 billion shortfall in the city's five-year financial plan. "This is a very bad situation," Nutter said. "We've come upon this economic crisis. We didn't create it, it was created by others." He insisted that concerns about the libraries that were voiced by citizens during eight community meetings were heard and taken into consideration.

Not so, said Eleanor Childs, 62, a teacher at Montessori Genesis II, a small private school in Powelton Village. "This is really a crime against the people," the library backer said after the news conference. "It's a civil-rights issue, this is a human-rights issue. This is not a budget issue." The Charles L. Durham Library, which Childs' students visit each week, is one of the 11 branches scheduled to close.

Nutter also announced that the LEAP (Learning, Education and Play) after-school programs housed in the 11 closing libraries will be relocated to nearby recreation centers, schools and other facilities on Jan. 12, the day the program is scheduled to restart for the new year. Eight of the new LEAP sites are within three blocks of the old sites, Nutter said, adding that one is eight blocks away but in a residential area. Nutter said that on Saturday he walked from the libraries to the new locations to gauge the distances. In all, more than 50 federally funded LEAP sites around the city provide more than 80,000 1st- through 12th-grade students with homework assistance, computer help, workshops, mentoring and other enrichment activities from September to June.

Nutter said that books and other materials likely would stay at the new knowledge centers, but computers leased by the city would not remain, and the new operators would equip the centers with new ones.

The dozens of teachers, students and other protesters who packed the news conference were unimpressed by what Nutter had to say. At 9:30 a.m. today some of them, members of several groups calling themselves the Coalition to Save the Libraries, planned to gather outside City Hall to "indict" Nutter. The charges against the mayor, according to a news release, include "wasting the minds of children," "promoting illiteracy" and "eliminating safe havens for kids." "I think it's a compromise that we cannot afford to make," Abby Miller, 34, a coalition member, said of the knowledge centers. "Community-run centers don't have the support that libraries have. They don't have trained librarians. It's a substitute for something that every neighborhood deserves."

The library issue has led City Council members to take sides. Council President Anna Verna and members Frank DiCicco, Marian Tasco and James Kenney stood with Nutter at yesterday's announcement. "I don't think I have any choice but to support the mayor," said Kenney. "People need to understand this is an international economic meltdown. We are in two wars and our economy is falling apart. . . . Screaming at the mayor in a rude way when he's trying to do his best to keep it all afloat, I think is crazy."

On the other side of the issue are three Council members who've filed a lawsuit to stop the library shutdowns: Bill Green, Jack Kelly and Jannie Blackwell. "All of my communities are united, whether it be Cobbs Creek or Mantua, whether it be Powelton Village in University City," said Blackwell. "All my neighborhoods, all races and income groups, everybody." "Last week before the issue of the lawsuit came up," Blackwell added, "I had teachers from my area saying, 'We're ready to go to jail.' "


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