Stupid English GCSEs...

Well, I've complained about this so much, I think I need to put it on the internet and save my friends and parents from having to hear any more of my rants.

For those of you who don't know about the English education system, we have something known as a GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education), which is exactly what it says on the tin: a very generalised and simplistic "qualification" taken by most people in years 10-11, although they can be done earlier. Most people take around 10 or 11, although you can take more and you can take them earlier. However, there are a set of subjects which you must take, which normally includes English (both language and literature), Maths, and the sciences.

What's the problem with this, you ask? I have a lot of moaning to do about the idea of compulsory GCSEs anyway, since people should be allowed to do what they're good at - and if that means some people take 2 and some take 20, that's what it means. Better that people do well at the things they enjoy than for them to be unfairly restricted or forced into getting bad grades. But that's another rant entirely...this one is about being forced to do English GCSE, and in particular being forced to take a certain kind of route.

There are some schools, I know, which allow students to take just one English GCSE in, well, English. Having not gone to one of them, I don't know how that route works. The one I know better splits English into two sections: English Language and English Literature. My rant is about English Literature.

Fine, you think. I don't like English Literature. Why should I gripe about it if I can do nothing? Live and let live.

Here are my reasons. Firstly, I'm not campaigning to get rid of it entirely: I'm campaigning to make it a non-compulsory subject. This isn't because I'm anti-intellectual or too thick to comprehend it, it's because passing English and Maths is required to get into any school or sixth-form college. Fail English Literature - and I will outline why some people may fail it, apart from being stupid - and you ruin your chances at life. The sad thing is that it's not completely necessary - in fact, it's not even adequate preparation for any form of literary criticism, and I'll show you why now.

There is something deeply wrong with the teaching and requirements of English Literature GCSE. Original thought is swept to one side and replaced by reams and reams of notes which must be regurgitated in an exam. This is (or rather, it should be) contrary to proper literary criticism, which is about interpreting and evaluating literature according to the text and one's own beliefs, not according to the text and someone else's ideas. Moreover, one does not actually need to study English Literature in order to use the language correctly: one could have learnt the definitions of mimesis, catharsis, metonymia, apostrophe, zeugma, tricolon, hysteron-proteron and whatever else inside-out, but be unable to use them properly in any form of speech or writing. Furthermore, it's quite unfair for someone's future to depend on the ability to regurgitate notes for an unnecessary subject. One could excel in every discipline except for English Literature, and - smack! - they could be failed simply for not having passed one useless subject.

Literary critics and English teachers of the world, I am not saying English Literature shouldn't be studied: I'm saying that unlike English Language and Maths, both of which are essential to communicate and survive, English Literature is not essential for survival or getting a good job, so failing someone on that basis is unfair, just as one wouldn't reject an applicant for a school or sixth-form college just because they failed Child Development or Dance. Also, as I've already said, English Literature GCSE isn't even real literary criticism, so it wouldn't prepare anyone hoping to study that at university for what it's really like. Furthermore, the text choices aren't exactly great literature: where's The Seagull? Where's Anna Karenina or The Faerie Queene? In fact, are the texts enjoyable? If you give people good, enjoyable literature, they'll be much more willing and much more able to analyse it. For example, I loved Anna Karenina to bits and would analyse Tolstoy's portrayal of women and society in my head, but I disliked A View from the Bridge (my set text for the Modern Drama module) and consequently had to be forced into analysing it. The annoying thing was that All My Sons, which I read while being forced to do my set text, was far better and I would have put far more effort into that than I would almost any of the plays on the list, which weren't very good at all (the one exception being The History Boys, a play I love - the BBC adaptation is brilliant - and the play which made me shoot daggers at my English teacher when he explained why he didn't pick it).

The course is also very Anglocentric - there's almost no foreign literature on there at all, and most of the foreign literature is from America. Where's the Tolstoy, the Chekhov, the Turgenev, the Pushkin, the Johnson, the Garcia Marquez, the Solzhenitsyn? (Yes, I love and adore Russian literature. I would have gladly studied that instead of English Literature, but beggars can't be choosers.) I know it's supposed to be a course about literature written in English, but the fact that there's almost no foreign literature means that students don't get a chance to expand their borders and see what literature's out there for them. The course can't even be properly Anglocentric - most of the famous English authors are either Shakespeare, Dickens or Austen. Chaucer sometimes gets a look-in, and I expect so do Milton and Donne (but rarely...I've never seen them appear on a GCSE course) and there's no Spenser. There isn't even any Henryson, and Anglo-Saxon literature (think Beowulf) is out of the question. Of course Shakespeare never gets old, but there are some of us who don't like 19th-century literature and prefer to read older works. It would be good to introduce these to students, just to show them where their rich tradition came from.

My main issues with this subject have now been discussed, but I just have one more point to gripe about: "accessibility". I put that in quotes because I detest the usage of the word - what once meant "easy to get to" now means "easiness" - not even "ease of understanding", and the actual meaning is close to "simplicity", as in "simplistic". Now that I've exhausted my quota for the day with regards to quotation marks, I can get on to what I actually find bad about this. I don't like the fact that English teachers think students are too stupid - or maybe I should have said not clever enough - to understand something more complex than Romeo and Juliet (which is a tragedy of two idiots or maybe a satire, not a straight romance - I can explain why if someone asks). If you give people challenging material, they will grow and they will rise to the challenge. If you shy away from that and you give them simplistic material, they will not grow academically and they will get used to not working their brains hard enough.

Don't think that I hate all literary criticism, or that I hate English literature. I like picking apart works and analysing them, and I have done since I was 12. What I dislike is being forced to regurgitate notes on simplistic works. Similarly, I don't hate English literature - one of my favourite works is The Faerie Queene - but I hate that people ignore foreign literature or ignore everything which isn't Shakespeare or from the 19th century.

So, if I've complained so much, I must have a solution...right? It wouldn't look good if I didn't, so the following is my prototype of sorts.

Firstly, English Literature should be renamed "Literary Criticism" and dropped as a compulsory subject altogether - instead, it would be taught from year 7 and possibly before, but it wouldn't be compulsory at GCSE and getting into a school or sixth-form college wouldn't depend on it. Secondly, the whole structure should be re-examined - I suggest splitting it into Drama, Prose Literature and Poetry and making students study at least one example of all. Thirdly, there would be no limits on culture and no set texts. Therefore pupils would be expected to bring in and analyse whatever they wished to study.

Obviously it wouldn't be possible (or at least it would be very unlikely) for a class of strong-minded pupils to agree on which pieces of literature they wanted to study in detail, so they would all be expected to bring in and work on their own material while a teacher came round and helped them. If small groups ended up picking the same pieces (and remember, it's free choice out of all the literature in the world), they would be allowed to work together, but overall individual work would be encouraged. If teachers really needed to do something with their time, they would spend it teaching the class about techniques and perspectives. The final graded piece would probably be a massive, in-detail essay about certain aspects of the piece they were studying - one for Drama, one for Prose Literature and one for Poetry, so for example, an essay on rich and poor in Uncle Vanya, a discussion on moral ideals in War and Peace and something on the way body parts are portrayed in The Canterbury Tales (I met someone who researched this last one, only he examined all of Chaucer's works, so my example is not entirely fanciful).

For those of you saying it's too hard, some of the foundations of this plan were sown when I was 12. Evidently I understood it, so it shouldn't be too difficult to transfer to GCSE-level students, especially considering that people grow when you challenge them. For those of you saying it's university-level work, good. It'll prepare them for studying literature at university. For those of you saying I have no idea how literature or literary criticism works in the teaching...if you're an English teacher, I'll defer to you if you show me an example.

Just this once, let's have original thought. Let's have complexity. Let's have a truly engaging, enjoyable, interesting subject that encourages people to think. Is it that much to ask for.