Education Quandary: 'If the exam boards put more modern novels on the syllabus and squeeze out the classics, isn't this dumbing down?'

Hilary's advice

Parents always want to see their children flogging through Eliot or Hardy, even though they would rarely open one of these authors' books themselves. Sometimes I think they just want their children to suffer in the same way they did. At other times, I allow them a higher motive – that they understand that great literature demands effort, and believe it is the job of schools to teach children how to make it.

But what about novels that are clearly of modern times – The Catcher in the Rye, Animal Farm – but have now gained classic status? Are they permissible? And, if so, at what point did they become so? Then there are novels that are on their way there, but not yet arrived, such as Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong, now widely studied in schools, even though critics still debate its merits.

Faulks himself is in no doubt about the value of studying modern fiction, and recently pointed a seminar of English teachers to Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty as a modern novel that reworks a classic theme. "It's about pleasure, and the debt to pleasure ... it's the same theme as Brideshead Revisited, about becoming depressed and drinking too much because you're sad and posh."

Eve Meyers-Belkin, head of English at Henrietta Barnett School in north London, who led the seminar for The Prince's Teaching Institute, believes there should be a good mixture of texts. But, she points out, students don't always enjoy studying modern books because often not much has been written about them, "so they actually have to think for themselves".

Readers' advice

If schools want to teach children to enjoy books, they should give them things they can relate to. We studied Jane Eyre, and no one in my class could stand it. Nor could we stand Shakespeare. Maybe when you're older books like this mean something to you, but we won't know because we've already been turned off and probably won't read much at all in the future.

Kim Owen, Lancashire

Whether you study something really up to date or totally old-fashioned, teachers always kill things off for students by making them read aloud in class. We studied Beloved by Toni Morrison, which should have been great, but was ruined for me by how it was read. This is the important thing; English teachers should teach differently.

Sohini Patel, Birmingham

Surely the whole point of good literature is to encourage readers to reflect on all the many aspects of the human condition. Today's children, living in a world of technology and consumerism, need to know something of life in different times. If they were to study Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South, for instance, they would see how the industrial society started and how it changed life for country people. If they were to study Primo Levi's books, they would have to think about man's barbarity to man. If they read only about their own life and times, they will be learning nothing new.

Joe Fitch, Hampshire

Next Week's Quandary

Dear Hilary, In my first 10 years of teaching, I taught three boys who had autism. In the following five years, I taught five. But, this year, I have two boys in my class of 28 who are on the autistic spectrum – and some parents have complained. Why is the incidence of the condition going up so fast, and will this continue? Does anyone know?

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