GCSE English row intensifies as exam boards drop African and Australian authors


The autobiography of Maya Angelou, the acclaimed African-American writer and civil rights campaigner who died this week, will no longer be part of GCSE English literature courses after controversial Government reforms, it was revealed today.

The controversy over the reform of GCSE English syllabuses escalated as two more exam boards revealed that foreign authors had been axed from their courses.

AQA, the biggest exam board, revealed that American novels including Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck and To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee had been dropped.

Books from Australia, New Zealand and Nigeria have also been axed, after a section of the syllabus called Exploring Cultures was scrapped.

Novels which will no longer be examined include A Purple Hibiscus by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Mister Pip by New Zealand author Lloyd Jones, while Rabbit-proof Fence, a biography by Australian author Doris Pilkington, has also been dropped.

A similar move by WJEC, the Welsh exam board, will mean that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou will no longer be a GCSE set book.

Books by British authors on the new syllabuses include Anita and Me, the debut novel by Meera Syal and Never Let Me Go, the dystopian science fiction novel by the Booker Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro.

Subject to approval by exam regulator Ofqual, the new courses will be taught from September 2015 and examined for the first time in 2017.

The controversy was sparked last week when OCR, a third exam board, unveiled its new syllabus and revealed that American novels including Of Mice and Men had been axed.

The announcements threaten to undermine claims from Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, that the Government has not put pressure on exam boards to ban foreign authors from GCSEs.

GCSEs in England must include at least one Shakespeare play, a 19th century novel, a selection of poetry from 1789 onwards, including the Romantic poets, and British fiction or drama from 1914 onwards.

A spokesman for the Department for Education insisted that no books had been banned arguing it was up to exam boards to decide which set books should be included, subject to the minimum requirements set out by Government.

He said: “GCSE specifications are only a starting point. Parents will rightly expect their children to read more than four pieces of literature over two years of studying for their GCSEs. It is important that pupils read widely, as they will in future be tested on two unseen texts which can be by authors outside of the exam board specification.

“The new GCSEs in English Literature will be broader and more challenging for pupils than those available at the moment. They will give pupils the chance to study some this country’s fantastic literary heritage, including works by Jane Austen, George Orwell, Kazuo Ishiguro and Meera Syal.

But a spokeswoman for AQA said that it would be impossible to include additional texts beyond the Government’s minimum requirements without placing “an unacceptable assessment burden” on schools. She said: "Once we had set the texts and poems to meet the essential requirements of the criteria, what we had was a full and complete course - we are really pleased with the combination and choice of texts we have put together, which has also had input from teachers.

"Whilst technically it would not be impossible to add additional texts beyond the essential requirements, to do so would place an unacceptable assessment burden on teachers and students, which we are clearly not prepared to do."

A spokesman for WJEC said that students would be encouraged to read a wide range of poetry for its “unseen” poetry exam which included authors from the USA, West Indies and Pakistan as well as the British Isles.

Nancy Hutt, English Literature Subject Officer at WJEC, said that students should read beyond the list of set texts. She said: “We believe that the new GCSE requirements still allow students to study a range of literary works by authors from around the world – as reflected in our new specification. Additionally, we encourage our learners to read works beyond the prescribed text list to achieve greater understanding of English literary works.”

EdExcel, the fourth exam board, is due to publish its new English specification tomorrow.