What did the national curriculum do for poetry? Pattern, prescription and contestation in the poetry selected for GCSE English Literature 1988-2018.
University of Cambridge
Faculty of Education
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Blake, J. V. (2020). What did the national curriculum do for poetry? Pattern, prescription and contestation in the poetry selected for GCSE English Literature 1988-2018. (Doctoral thesis). https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.47726
For schools in England and Wales, the 1988 Education Reform Act established the foundation for a national curriculum and a new type of public examination for all pupils at the end of their compulsory schooling. In the statutory orders for English in the national curriculum and the new GCSE qualifications in English and English literature, the study of poetry was made mandatory. My object of enquiry is the poetry selected and prescribed as material for the GCSE English literature examination between 1988 and 2018. Configuring these poems, poets and collections in an original database underpins a “scalable reading” method derived from Digital Humanities. This method uses quantitative data and close reading to track the effect of policy on the poetry set text. That effect is striking: in 1988 there was a combined GCSE corpus of 6,903 poems by 1,039 poets, in 2018 there were 119 poems by 73 poets. This study explores the shifting pattern of government prescription and professional contestation over 30 years. By tracking the relationship between poets named in the national curriculum and those featured in six series of GCSE anthologies, I show the dynamics by which the pedagogical canon was reshaped. Through close reading of the most salient poems I demonstrate how this process operated within a longer historical stewardship of the pedagogical canon rooted in the poetry of Victorian mass schooling. Quantitative analysis allowed me to model the process of real-time canon formation I observed using a theoretical framework derived from anthology studies, literary reception history and period studies. This contributes a case study to debate about how schooling shapes public taste and understanding of poetry. I argue that the possibilities of poetry as encountered by young people at school have been diminished, in part the consequence of a depletion of the state’s processes and infrastructure for principled expert curriculum review. I conclude that it is timely for a less polarised debate about the place of poetry in the English curriculum, more securely grounded in the empirical evidence of subject history.
Canon formation, Poetry, Anthologies, National Curriculum, GCSE English, English literature, School English, Scaleable reading, Digital literary history, Database, Curriculum
This record's DOI: https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.47726
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