One group has voted to ban a prescribed list of authors put forward as part of Sir Ron Dearing's overhaul of the curriculum. Another group at the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, which Sir Ron chairs, is determined to keep the list. They expect to win the backing of a full meeting of the authority, which will finalise the curriculum in 10 days' time.
The dispute could bring renewed conflict between ministers and English teachers: teachers are in a majority on the English advisory group which wants the list dropped.
Teachers say a prescribed list is unnecessary and that they must be free to choose authors appropriate for different children. They also argue that it is impossible to agree on which authors should be included.
Traditionalists say the canon is vital to ensure that all children study some pre-20th century works and that the publication of a 'canon' has already led to children reading more early literature. Teachers do not have to teach all the prescribed authors but must choose from the list.
The canon, similar to that in the Government's first attempt to revise the English curriculum 18 months ago, includes Eliot, Swift, Dickens and Austen, as well as William Golding, L P Hartley, John Steinbeck, Susan Hill and Ray Bradbury for 14- to 16-year-olds. Other authors, such as Kenneth Grahame and Lewis Carroll, are prescribed for younger children.
Officials at the authority are divided. Some back a compromise that pupils should have to study works from the list or those of 'comparable' authors. Others say this will allow a minority of teachers to continue to teach predominantly 20th century literature.
The new curriculum which will come into use in schools in September next year is the Government's third attempt to review English.
David Pascall, former chairman of the National Curriculum Council, which produced the first version, said yesterday:
'We were not convinced that our objectives of reading widely to experience and enjoy works of our heritage would be met, unless we provided a canon of books within the national curriculum.'
Anne Barnes, chairman of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said that she could not comment on the revised curriculum, but added: 'It is ignorant to say that one book is better than another for children at a particular age. A reading list must constrain and that is foolish.'
Teachers have already secured important changes to the English curriculum, including the abandonment of proposals to make children speak grammatically correct standard English even in the playground.
English teachers also complained that the original version put too much emphasis on the mechanics of grammar and punctuation.
The draft of the new proposals accepts that all children need to be able to speak, write and read standard English but adds that 'a richness of dialects and languages in England and Wales can contribute to pupils knowledge and understanding of language'.
The aim should be 'to equip young people with the ability to use standard English where circumstances require it'.
Teachers have also secured a higher profile for media studies, with a recognition that children should study newspaper articles and television programmes in English lessons.
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