Does CfE English need a set text list?

I’ve just received the list of texts that I’ll be teaching this year.  Lots of Theresa Breslin, lots of Joan Lingard, lots of Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games). I’d really been hoping to be teaching more ‘classic’ texts, similar to ones listed here :

In what’s almost becoming cliche on English teacher blogs, I’d be happy for students to read these books in their spare time, but I think there are better choices for the classroom. Graduate teachers shouldn’t have to waste their time teaching children’s books. They should be able to use their expertise to make difficult texts accessible – texts all students will come across in their adult lives (Shakespeare, Dickens, Burns, etc). I asked my PT Shakespeare was on a different page, one still to be printed? She told me they “don’t teach Shakespeare here, the kids wouldn’t understand it.” Is this normal? Maybe I just want the moon on a stick.


7 thoughts on “Does CfE English need a set text list?

  1. In a word, no.

    The great strength of the Scottish approach to teaching English is the freedom that individual teachers have to decide what to teach, and the day this freedom disappears is the day I walk away from teaching for good. It is an utter fallacy that set-text lists are the best way to ensure that students are able to engage with high-quality literature – in fact, too often the opposite is the case (see the Scottish Set Text list for National 5 English for an example of this). As an example of this, here’s a link to the resources I’ve created for a range of National 5 and Higher English texts ( ), and I’d be happy to furnish you with a list of other texts that I’ve taught which prove my point.

    I’d also caution against being too influenced by the slavish obsession with ‘classic’ texts that has become so prevalent (notably amongst a number of bloggers in England) as the rationale behind it is seriously flawed and dependent upon an entirely different educational culture (which I am eternally grateful has not, as of yet, taken hold up here).

    Finally, I must be honest, one sentence stood out as a truly dreadful thing for any English teacher to think: “Graduate teachers shouldn’t have to waste their time teaching children’s books.” The very notion that teaching children’s literature to children is wasted time is, frankly, appalling to me, and the implicit argument (that we English graduates are above such things) does rather suggest to me that you might be getting into teaching for the wrong reasons.

    What I will say, however, is that I don’t like teachers being given a list of texts to teach by their department, and I am exceedingly lucky that such a thing has never happened to me – we are always at the mercy of the stock cupboard in terms of the novels and plays we teach, but beyond that what we teach in our classrooms should be our decision, not that of our PT.

  2. Ok, thanks for the comments and the link to your materials. I felt though that words like “dreadful” and “appalling” were hurtful and more likely to shut down a discussion rather than encourage it.

    I got into teaching because I’m passionate about great works of art and have a romantic faith in their transformative power. I don’t get very excited by some of the middle of the road books found in department stock cupboards, especially when time is limited and there are better options available.

    Maybe what I should have said is “graduate teachers shouldn’t have to waste large sections of their time teaching literature they don’t feel passionate about”. It’s not about being ‘above’ or ‘below’.

    The obvious paradox is that a set text list would force some teachers to teach texts that they don’t love. In my opinion there are a (small) number of texts for which ‘agreed cultural importance’ trumps teacher preference. E.g I’d teach Dickens though I don’t often read him for pleasure.

    I agree that teacher freedom is hugely important, and of course this shouldn’t disappear. I just wonder if a (small) set text list should form a part of the syllabus. One reason being that I reached the age of eighteen without reading a single Shakespeare play. This put me at a disadvantage at university compared to those who had covered several plays at school and I had to spend a lot of time catching up. Lecturers assumed everyone had studied Romeo & Juliet, MacBeth and Hamlet when it wasn’t the case at all. Situations like that wouldn’t happen if we had some kind of core texts.

  3. It’s an interesting point about the Shakespeare, but to be honest I don’t think it’s workable – who decides what’s on the list? How often is it updated? How small would it be? Which aspects of the course would be restricted?

    There are certainly a lot of very average texts taking up space on school bookshelves, but that problem wouldn’t be solved by a set text list (it is in fact best solved by giving teachers the freedom to introduce new texts all the time).

    I apologise if my choice of language bothered you, and the intention was not to make any personal attack, but I’m afraid I stand by my point – the insistence on the phrase ‘graduate teachers’ isn’t helpful as it still suggests a sense of superiority. Your amended statement, though, about being free to teach what we love is something I would broadly agree with although it runs contrary to the notion of education officials (or a very small group of teachers) setting a specific list of required texts. Even your proposed solution of ‘agreed cultural importance’ wouldn’t be effective as some people – myself included – wouldn’t have Dickens on that particular list.

    You previously mentioned the notion of students reading in their own time, but I’d argue that point is in fact more relevant to those embarking on university degrees than fourteen year old pupils – if your course leaders assume you have read Romeo and Juliet then you should spend a couple of hours reading it that evening. Schools are never going to be able to cover everything that a particular university lecturer might think to be essential, meaning that a set text list could never be successful on those terms.

  4. I’d say it’s not workable until people start talking about how to work it. My vote would be for a Makar lead panel of successful Scottish writers (Liz Lochhead, James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, David Greig, Andrew Greig, Alan Bisset, John Burnside, Andrew O’Hagan, James Robertson, etc) who meet annually to thrash out the texts. The exact number should be negotiated with the teachers’ unions.

    Giving teachers freedom to introduce new texts is useful, but at the moment I’m not sure that teachers’ subject knowledge is put under enough enough scrutiny for me to trust the judgement of teachers. From my own schooling and from my own teacher training I’ve met many charismatic English teachers whose knowledge of literature was limited.

    You object to my suggestion of “a sense of superiority” but I stand by it. Graduate professionals who have studied a subject to degree level should be experts with superior knowledge and skills compared to novices. We should appreciate that knowledge and use it to stretch our students, challenging them with texts that they probably couldn’t have understood without our expert guidance.

    Dickens is contentious depending on whether it’s a Scottish core or a British one that you’re compiling, but the same could be said for many authors. Not everyone is going to agree, but you should teach the set texts while lobbying for them to be changed if you disagree.

    Thanks for your apology. I was disappointed because (and maybe I haven’t made this clear enough) I’m not writing to distribute my opinions or propaganda – I’m writing to start a discussion that I haven’t seen happening and sometimes that might involve being deliberately controversial or exaggerating my own opinions. I’m still forming my own values and ideas so would be grateful for a measured response whenever I might appear to step out of line.

    • I have no interest in a bunch of authors telling me what I should be teaching – if the graduate status if the profession is as important as you argue it to be then teachers need to be trusted, not shackled. Also, in practical terms, a set list which changes anything like annually is simply not financially viable.

      I think a big part of my issue with this kind of thinking is that the people clamouring for set texts always essentially argue that OTHER teachers can’t be trusted to do their jobs without prescription.

      As I’ve said before, the great strength of English teaching in Scotland is the freedom we have, and any attempt to undo this would be a regressive move.

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