What books should our children read?

Today, as the national curriculum body starts a great debate on English lessons, we list the 20 authors that we think all pupils should be acquainted with. Hilary Wilce reports

We are all being asked a very big educational question: what should children be taught in English lessons in the future? With a small flurry of manufactured publicity and a little line-up of literary celebs, the national curriculum body yesterday launched what it is hoping will be a great debate on classroom English in the 21st century.

We are all being asked a very big educational question: what should children be taught in English lessons in the future? With a small flurry of manufactured publicity and a little line-up of literary celebs, the national curriculum body yesterday launched what it is hoping will be a great debate on classroom English in the 21st century.

The English curriculum has not changed for 10 years, according to Sue Horner, head of English at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). "We thought that rather than just tinker with it we would think hard about it, and how it will look in the future. We don't have a view. We are saying: 'What do you think about this, then?' It is a completely new way for us to work." The debate aims to gather views from all quarters - parents, teachers, children, employers, health visitors, universities, pre-school workers - on four key aspects of the subject: English for younger pupils, English for 14- to 19-year-olds, the use of technology in English teaching, and assessment.

But whether the country will have anything interesting to say in this big debate is debatable. Initial responses show that, never mind the future, many people long for a return to the past.

"What should be taught in the 21st century is exactly the same as what was taught in the 20th century," says Chris Woodhead, a former chief inspector of schools and now a research professor at the private Buckingham University. "We should initiate young people into the joys of English literature, give them the basic skills of literacy that they need in adult life, and teach them to be articulate and to be able to express themselves verbally."

Sir Digby Jones, director-general of the CBI, which consistently points out that a third of employers have to offer remedial literacy training to school leavers, bangs a similarly traditionalist drum. "Too many pupils are being let down by the education system and face exclusion from the 21st-century world of work because they cannot read or write properly," he says.

"Of course the English curriculum should be varied and stretching, especially for the most able youngsters, but literacy standards must be the cornerstone. Resources and attention must not be diverted from tackling poor basic skills, which the business community regards as the education system's greatest failing."

And the Trinidadian news anchor Sir Trevor McDonald, chair of the Better English Campaign, goes further, deploring the slide away from formal English and calling for a return to the teaching of grammar. "You can't teach English without teaching the fundamentals of grammar," he says. "Sentence construction, clauses, nouns and verbs. What a metaphor is. What a gerund is. Then there has been all the talk about what you might call native languages, about how young black boys speak in America, and so on. Well, fine. But talking like that won't get you a job in the City of London. And why make things more difficult for yourself than they already are?"

However, the QCA says its English 21 campaign will raise important questions about how, for example, galloping technology will affect what is being taught in 10 years' time. Should teenagers study the English language as a separate subject, or as part of a sweep through drama, media, film and language? Should touch-typing be taught instead of handwriting? How can creativity be encouraged? Will books matter as much in the future? What's the best way to assess skills in English? And, if children are arriving in school already familiar with computers, how will that alter the way they learn to read and write?

Furthermore, there is the loaded question of which books should be read in schools. As society grows more diverse, should we stick with the traditional English literary heritage? Or go for a more multicultural vision?

"This is a conversation that badly needs to happen," says Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate, who is backing the debate, and who has been shocked to discover what today's young people don't know. "I recently taught a roomful of clever 18- and 19-year-olds, all with their three As at A-level, and not one of them had read the Bible, or knew there had been a Civil War. I think we need to have a much more energetic debate about how to keep the past alive for young people. Having a canon of literature is an unpopular idea, for obvious reasons, but I think it's a deep crime never to have come across things like Paradise Lost, some key Shakespeares, William Wordsworth's The Prelude, Great Expectations..."

The playwright Ronald Harwood, chairman of the Royal Society of Literature, also minds the gaps in young people's knowledge and makes common cause with the traditionalists. "I was shocked to hear that Shakespeare was not being taught [in schools]," he says. "I do believe there has been a lowering of standards. There have been these buzzwords of 'access' and 'elitism', and too many concessions to ethnicities. Decent literature isn't elitist, but you have to work at it."

Having a canon of literature can help, he believes. "I had one in my secondary modern in Cape Town," he says. "I studied two Shakespeares, a Hardy - it was terrific."

Another literary giant, Michael Morpurgo, the Children's Laureate and award-winning author, is pleased that the QCA is looking seriously at the teaching of English. But he does not take the traditionalist road and his views about the importance of creativity show just how disparate are the views held by the experts. "There seems to be little room for creativity these days," he says. "Teachers have to stick to targets; fear has crept into the system."

Morpurgo would like every primary-school day to end with a creative half hour where children enjoy stories and drama. "Soak them in stories," he says. "Then the rest, the grammar, spelling and punctuation makes sense. It's attached to something they love." He would like test-based story writing scrapped in favour of every child putting together an arts folder containing a story, a poem and a picture during their final year at primary school, and for teachers to read more themselves. "In France, trainee teachers do a course in children's literature, but here teachers often don't read at all. It's absurd." Teachers should be the ones deciding which books children read. "The minute you write down the right books to read you are going against the grain, especially when it comes from Government. You're saying if a book's not on the list, it doesn't count."

He, like others, is keen to see the media playing a much bigger role in encouraging the love of literature. Radio 4 is now down to one children's programme a week, and of that programme only a third is story-telling, he says. If society doesn't value it enough, why should children?

There is widespread acknowledgement that today's media-savvy youngsters need new ways into old classics. Harwood underlines the importance of film and TV adaptations for young people. Motion points to his own work putting a bank of readings by living poets onto the internet, along with lesson plans that teachers can use. This is the way technology can revitalise English teaching, he says.

"You have to be pragmatic," Motion argues. "You've got to have a balance between imagination and skills, and between using technology and more familiar ways of teaching. And if new things are to happen, you have to make room for them. This conversation has to be aware, at every turn, of how all these high-minded and well-intentioned ideas might seem to the teachers who actually have to put them into practice."

If good things emerge from this fact-finding exercise, which ends in the summer, changes will start to be implemented this autumn, says QCA's Horner. The authority will not, however, be rushing into changing the national curriculum, though it will be listening to what people have to say.

But not everyone thinks the great debate is a good idea. Woodhead, in particular, is highly critical. "The QCA should stick to its job," he says, "and let English teachers stick to theirs. This is a gross waste of public money."

What do you think? Write to english21@qca.org.uk. Or visit www.qca.org.uk to read the discussion papers


Tomorrow's children will grow up in a world that will be more diverse and global than ever. Should they focus on mainly English books? Or should school texts reflect the changing reality? If so, how? Our top 20 authors are:

Shakespeare: King Lear / Romeo and Juliet

John Donne

The Romantic poets: Keats/Coleridge/ Wordsworth

Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice

Charles Dickens: Great Expectations

Anton Chekhov: Short stories

TS Eliot

F Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby

Virginia Woolf: To The Lighthouse

George Orwell: Animal Farm

Alan Paton: Cry, the Beloved Country

Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot

Primo Levi: If This Is a Man

William Golding: Lord of the Flies

Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird

VS Naipaul: A House for Mr Biswas

Salman Rushdie: Midnight's Children

Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid's Tale

Toni Morrison: Beloved

Haruki Murakami: Norwegian Wood

Do you agree? If not, let us know what you think by e-mailing education@independent.co.uk