Jonny Mitchell: Kids will miss out on greats of literature

HEAD LINES Jonny Mitchell.
HEAD LINES Jonny Mitchell.

Thornhill Community Academy’s straight-talking headteacher Jonny Mitchell showed the world what life in the classroom is really like in the award-winning TV documentary series Educating Yorkshire.

Now he writes exclusively for us.

Every week he will give us his take on life in and outside school from his hometown in Dewsbury.

For those of you who are not in the know (and why should you be?), the Department for Education has recently announced lasting changes to the reading list for GCSE English Literature, eschewing all works not written by English writers.

OK, I will concede that there are plenty of English writers worthy of study, far too many indeed to include in any reading list. What I find just a little bit galling, however, is the almost scant disregard this decision shows for some of the greatest and most relevant works of fiction ever written, and which we should under every circumstance be encouraging our kids to read.

I mean, getting kids to read for pleasure is difficult in itself past the age of 11... cutting out some absolutely belting works is clearly folly, and not far short of sacrilege.

In a climate where we are supposed to be broadening our horizons, discovering different cultures, understanding other peoples and reaching out across national borders to promote mutual understanding, stripping the likes of Steinbeck, Scott Fitzgerald and Lee from the study list beggars belief, mine certainly.

And what of other British and Irish authors, hitherto fair game and now consigned to the GCSE wastepaper basket? James Joyce, Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter Scott, Samuel Beckett, Dylan Thomas to name just a few. Some of the best-selling and most popular authors of all time notably also fall foul of the new regime: JK Rowling, JRR Tolkien, Bill Bryson are amongst the disappointing omissions. Of course, I could go on discussing the relative merits of non-English wordsmiths ad nauseam. But what about the application of similar narrow-mindedness to other subjects?

Let us just study English geography, for example, or English history. If we are going to be protectionist, let us at least do it across the piece. No more population studies of Africa and Asia, no more in-depth studies of the rise and fall of the Nazis or China’s One Child Policy. And music? I would be very bored if we only heard Britten, Elgar and Vaughan-Williams (and I very much like classical music, by the way). The less said about my subject, modern foreign languages, of course, the better.

I could go on. I won’t, though. I think you get my drift.

I would love our kids to read more, and enjoy reading more. Limiting the list of eligible works and authors to English writers, we risk some of our most disengaged students missing out on the delights of Of Mice and Men, in some cases the only real reading they will ever do – a book full of relevance and life lessons, and actually a cracking good read to boot.

I have a feeling my English teacher colleagues and KS4 students will soon launch a Save Steinbeck petition. I will be signing it.

On June 29, a scratch Educating Yorkshire XI will be taking on an invitation XI in a cricket match to raise funds for Cystic Fibrosis at Ackworth Cricket Club near Pontefract. There will be a range of fun activities from noon, and I would urge people to come along and join in the fun. Follow me on Twitter (@ThornhillCAHead) for more details. We would love to see you there.