How to pass English Literature A level

An idiot’s guide…

Actually, it’s not as hard as you might think. I spent two years doing it, and twenty-eight years teaching it, so I ought to be able to pass something on. The odd thing about the subject is how little it’s changed, despite the tinkering and tampering. There was a period between about 1976 and 1990, and especially 1990 and 1997 when it became more interesting, but John Major’s paranoia, having heard of the word ‘coursework’ over a meal one evening with the late Lord Griffiths, reverted it to its original state, and in the process of trying to make it harder, made it simpler. At a stroke, unaware, one supposes, of what he was doing, he reduced the average number of texts studied by students. This was in the name of progress, of course.

My own A level (1967-1969) obliged me, apart from rounding up the usual suspects – Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton – to write about some contemporary writers. But the board whose syllabus I was following had an odd rule. You could answer either three OR four questions in the time allowed. From where I was sitting, that was a no-brainer. I was going to study three books and not four books, if I could help it. And these were Pinter’s The Caretaker (quite a radical choice for its day, since it was still early in Pinter’s career); James’ The Turn of the Screw, which was nothing if not short; and a famous work by that grand old man of English Literature, Anton Chekhov, viz. The Seagull. (I think that would now be banned as ‘foreign’.)

In those days, teachers indulged quite wilfully, and with good reason, in an exercise called ‘question-spotting’. They were very good at it. They reckoned that there were only a finite number of questions to be asked on any one subject, and they also noted that the same question was never asked two years running. So, in the case of The Seagull, the odds were deemed to be strong on the prospect of ‘Is The Seagull a comedy?’ They were deemed to be so strong, in fact, that we were required to write this particular essay, against the clock, no fewer than three times in preparation for the examination. On the one hand, yes, and on the other hand, no – that was the answer. All you had to do was to memorise the quotations to go with it. If you could throw in the names of a couple of critics (now called ‘secondary sources’), so much the better.

The afternoon arrived for us to unscrew our Platignums (I am fairly sure that biro was still banned), and show the world what our intellects were made of. We turned over the question paper. There it was: ‘Is The Seagull a comedy?’ To say I wrote my answer with a certain sprightly haste is an understatement. It was more rote than wrote. I knocked out the most recent version from memory, almost word for word. You have to wonder whether the teachers had moles in the inner sanctums (sancta?) of the exam board. I like to think not. But I also know that my success in that particular exam was not much to do with being anything more than slightly retentive.

That and the dose of Pro-Plus, a proprietary brand of caffeine, the purchase of which was not especially frowned on. Everyone in the examination hall was effectively as awake as if they’d drunk about 400 cups of coffee.

Because I had learned pretty well nothing about teaching from my teachers, other than a very sophisticated form of cheating, when I came to apply my technique to my first students a few years later, I had hardly a clue where to start. And by that time, things had started to shift. The question-spotter’s day was over. I was teaching an ‘alternative’ syllabus, which, because it was deemed experimental, didn’t change the set texts for seven years. One was Hardy’s The Return Of the Native. In all the years I taught it, the question I was sure would come up, ‘What is the importance of Mrs. Yeobright?’, didn’t. But I was up against the first and perhaps only great chief examiner in the history of the subject, Peter Buckroyd, who was highly responsible for making the subject interesting, and whose work was subsequently undone to a silly extent by the Powers That Be.

As usual, I’ve run out of space, and contributed only a facetious account of my own experience. But I do have something sensible to write on the issue of how to pass this subject, and I’ll get to it tomorrow.


One Response to How to pass English Literature A level

  1. Grey says:


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