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Last Updated: Friday, 16 February 2007, 12:31 GMT
Teachers fight back over classics
Gillian Anderson and Charles Dance in Bleak House
Many people know classics from TV adaptations
Education Secretary Alan Johnson has been branded a "bird brain" for ordering that difficult classic authors be taught to 11 and 12-year-olds.

Introducing complex texts to pupils who are not ready for them will turn them off authors like Austen and Dickens for life, English teachers have said.

Mr Johnson said writers such as George Eliot and Alexander Pope were "untouchable" in a curriculum shake-up.

He argued they were vital for a well-rounded British education.

Mr Johnson was reacting to renewed press reports that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority was planning to scrap a list of recommended authors.

The guy's a bird brain. If he wants to make an informed decision he can give me a ring
Ian McNeilly
National Association for the Teaching of English

Policy director of the National Association for the Teaching of English, Ian McNeilly, who is also an English teacher, said: "For students who are not yet ready, teaching texts of such linguistic complexity is completely counter-productive."

He accused Mr Johnson of trying to secure a few more votes from Middle England "by not allowing standards to slip".

"But you don't have to do that by shoe-horning a classic author into the classroom," he added.

"The guy's a bird brain. If he wants to make an informed decision he can give me a ring. His decision is completely uninformed."

Jane Austen, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Blake, Charlotte Bronte, Robert Burns, Geoffrey Chaucer, Kate Chopin, John Clare, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, George Eliot, Thomas Gray, Thomas Hardy, John Keats, John Masefield, Alexander Pope, Christina Rossetti, William Shakespeare (sonnets), Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jonathan Swift, Alfred Lord Tennyson, HG Wells, Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Wordsworth and William Wordsworth

Chairman of the English Association's secondary schools committee, Ian Brinton, agreed that many of the texts on the prescribed list were too difficult for most pupils at Key Stage 3 (ages 11 to 14).

He said: "Pupils are not going to learn if they are going to be stunned into a sense of, ' this is what good literature is'."

He added: "I would be interested to know what Alan Johnson and the QCA people were reading at 11 and 12 years old.

"It's very easy for people to forget what the world of childhood is like."

He said he would be surprised if any of the authors on the list was taught to this age group.

A more practical approach would be to use poetry to teach children how to read a text closely, he added.

'Ditching the classics'

While the QCA was drafting the new curriculum Mr Johnson told it to include recommended lists.

Last July he wrote to chief executive Ken Boston: "I consider it particularly important to stress some elements of study that should be included at Key Stage 3.

"For example, I believe it would be helpful to provide illustrative lists of writers to support the teaching of English".

On 9 August Mr Johnson assured the public there was "no danger" England's schools would be forced to "ditch the classics".

He then sent another letter to the QCA, saying: "I would be grateful if ... you could ensure that you continue to provide a recommended list of pre-20th Century authors and poets in the Key Stage 3 and 4 programme of study for English."

'Educational heritage'

The resulting list included writers such as Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, Geoffrey Chaucer and at least one Shakespeare play.

A DfES spokeswoman said: "There are certain untouchable elements of the secondary curriculum that all teenagers should learn for a classic, well-rounded British education.

"For example, it's vital that teachers instil a love of literature in young people and engage them with the best-loved writers from our history."

A spokesman for the QCA said: "There's a broad consensus on studying classic authors but a more flexible approach to the curriculum is also important."

Teachers who felt strongly about these issues should respond to the QCA's consultation, he said.

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