Milton campaign sparks A-level curriculum row

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The Independent Online
Of good and evil much they argued then,

Of happiness and final misery,

Passion and apathy, and glory and shame,

Vain wisdom all, and false philosophy.

Paradise Lost

ALL ENGLISH A-level candidates will have to study Milton if traditionalists among the Government's advisers on examinations get their way. A fierce argument is in progress among members of the English committee at the Government's exams council about whether Milton should join Shakespeare as a compulsory author on A-level syllabuses.

John Marenbon, the committee's chairman, believes all candidates should study Milton. Some members say the case for other classic authors is just as strong.

Teachers say compulsory Milton will discourage pupils from taking the subject, especially those who enter only short A/S courses. They see the proposal as the latest example of attempts by traditionalists to impose their will.

Last week, Sir Malcolm Thornton, Conservative chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Education, attacked ministers for allowing themselves to be influenced by right-wing pressure groups which he described as 'lords of misrule' and purveyors of 'insidious propaganda'.

Sir Malcolm's attack on the influence of the right follows those of Professor Brian Cox, who chaired the Government's national curriculum working party on English, Professor Eric Bolton, former senior chief inspector of schools and Professor Paul Black, who chaired the working party on national curriculum testing.

The question of compulsory texts at A-level has arisen because the School Examinations and Assessment Council is drawing up new guidelines for exam boards on a 'core' syllabus for the exam. The boards are expected to follow the guidelines though they are not legally binding. At present, sixth- formers have to study Shakespeare and two pre-19th century texts of their choice.

Dr Marenbon said he could not comment on a matter still under discussion in the committee. He believes Britain's literary heritage is in danger because students are arriving at university ignorant of great works. A committee member said: 'We have to make A- level English both rigorous and attractive. I share the view of those who feel that Milton and Chaucer should have some kind of special ranking if it can be done.'

Professor Brian Cox, professor of English at Manchester University, said: 'Almost every English teacher I know, including those who are very enthusiastic about Milton, believes it will be very damaging and restricting to literary studies to prescribe anything more than Shakespeare.

'It is very worrying that the people behind this have no experience of teaching English in schools . . . It is important that teachers in different types of schools should be able to make their choice of texts according to what they think will be a success with their pupils.'

The row over the English curriculum is affecting the entire age range. Protests from teachers of English about last-minute changes imposed by John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, and his traditionalist allies to the first national tests for 14-year- olds have grown to the point where the National Union of Teachers is surveying members' views on a boycott.

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