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Bryanston’s English department bucks the trend

In our latest blog post, our Head of English shines a light on the media’s concern over the decline in English Literature A Level, as well as exploring how Bryanston empowers its pupils to discover that the written word remains at the very centre of culture…

On A Level results day, TES reported that English A Level had fallen out of the top ten most popular subjects for the very first time. There was the biggest ever drop in candidates for a single subject, falling by 9.4% from 2021 to this year. On the same day the Bryanston English department celebrated its highest number of A*s since 2017, and we have started 2022 with the largest English A level cohort since 2015

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that government reforms to GCSE English Literature were to blame for the national fall, putting students off the subject ‘because of the grind of memorising large amounts of traditional texts.’

This makes uncomfortable reading for an English teacher — and completely overlooks what you might call the ‘pleasure principle’: that children (and adults) actually like reading, and the reading and writing habit, once inculcated, is both a vital tool and a deep joy throughout life.

English Literature is an important subject. It develops important skills such as creativity and critical thinking, as well as fostering a vital connection to our cultural past. It’s a subject that should inspire and empower young people.

So – how do we achieve this at Bryanston?

  • We offer our pupils the chance to watch dynamic stage and film versions of their set texts.
  • We have Literary Society, junior and senior creative writing groups, book clubs and regular essay and poetry competitions.
  • We involve our pupils in some truly remarkable events – for example over the past year, we welcomed Poet Laureate Simon Armitage and Michael Rosen to speak with pupils, to name just a few VIPs we welcomed to the School.
  • We encourage all pupils to visit the Library regularly and to enjoy using this space for their assignment periods. Our librarian Mrs. Minter is a wonderful source of reading recommendations and has a brilliant interactive catalogue, continuously updating her collections of Young Adult Fiction and non-fiction, as well as the classics.

More specifically, at GCSE we study four works: a novel, two plays (one by Shakespeare) and a collection of poetry. We strike a balance between canonical literary works and less traditional options. Pupils need to show detailed knowledge and include quotations in their essays, but equal weight is given to a pupil’s personal response – in English, the examiner wants to know what you think. Putting your feelings into words and building a reasoned argument (what we used to call ‘rhetoric’) are core skills in the subject, ones that everyone will need in life.

At IB, all pupils do some English and the IB values of independence, reflection and inquiry are equally important in the study of English A Level.

Pupils who wish to study at European or US universities may find that these organisations value the study of literature beyond age 16. My colleagues in the Eton group of independent schools report that English A Level is increasingly chosen by students who wish to take a fourth humanities subject alongside STEM choices. English and English-related degrees (such as journalism, law, film and theatre and media studies) remain popular choices at Higher Education.

With all this in mind, I am delighted that we have started the new academic year with the largest cohort studying English A Level since 2015. I firmly believe that the book is a miraculous piece of technology – it’s portable, inexpensive, it doesn’t power down or glitch, and gives you instant access to the thoughts, ideas, and creative expressions of people from other times and places.

Reading promotes mindfulness and brain development, develops language and emotions, and strengthens relationships. As a way of building sympathy and understanding between people with different experiences, books are unrivalled.