I am deeply concerned about changes to the HSC English syllabus. Contrary to public statements by the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) about increasing rigor, I believe the changes dumb-down the senior English curriculum in alarming ways.
The most concerning changes
Students will no longer be required to study a novel and poetry
Prior to the changes all students in NSW were required to study a novel and poetry in Year 12 English. All students had the opportunity to engage with ‘great literature’ and the big ideas about the human condition that it invites. But now, for the first time in the history of HSC English in this state, the study of novels and poetry is optional.
NESA claimed that the works of Dickens, Austen and Conrad would now be mandatory, heralding a return of ‘great literature’. NESA President, Mr Alegounarias was reported as saying, “in English, for example, Shakespeare or the equivalent other aspects of great literature will be mandatory.”
These claims are simply inaccurate. Here’s why.
Prior to the changes announced last week, the study of prose fiction was indeed mandatory for all students in ATAR HSC English courses. Until the changes announced last week, this mandatory requirement has been the case in NSW English for over 100 years. Similarly, Shakespearean drama has been mandatory for all students in Advanced English. No change there.
But now, the study of prose fiction – ‘great literature’ – is optional. Now, no student is obliged to read a novel anymore to fulfil the requirements for HSC English.
Before these recent changes, all students had to select a prose fiction text from the prescribed text lists accompanying the syllabus. These text lists included the novels of international authors such as Dickens, Austen, Conrad, the Brontës, Shelley, Lawrence, Hardy, Twain, Steinbeck, Orwell, Huxley, Fitzgerald, Woolf, Bradbury, Salinger, Calvino, Dessaix, Lahiri, Le Guin, Haddon, and Ondatje. Just to name a few.
These examples of ‘great literature’ have populated the English text lists for generations. Suddenly, they have been stripped of their core status and rendered optional. Likewise, the ‘great literature’ of Australian writers such as Patrick White, Tim Winton, Peter Carey, and David Malouf, or poets such as Wilfred Owen, WH Auden, William Blake, Banjo Paterson, Judith Wright, and Oodgeroo Noonuccal. They are all now in the options basket.
So, regardless of what authors may be on the prescribed text list (which has yet to be released), there is no requirement to select a single novel or a single set of poems from the text list, because novels and poetry are now an option.
The long-standing requirement, in place since 1911, for all final year HSC English students in NSW to engage with novels and poetry, has been scrapped. I believe this change will send a strong message to students, teachers and the community that fiction and poetry, two of the most sophisticated forms of human expression in language, do not really matter. This change undermines the potential for enhancing higher-order, transferrable critical thinking, language, writing, problem-solving, and analytical skills that such engagement with literature promotes.
Reduction in texts that need to be studied
There is also a reduction in the number of texts for study in English. The mandatory requirement has been reduced from four to three texts for Standard English, and from five to four texts in Advanced English.
In Standard English, for example, students can now select to study a film, a play and a set of speeches in their final year of English. Novels and poetry are no longer mandatory. In Advanced English, students must study a Shakespearean drama and can then select to study, for example, a film, speeches and drama to fulfil their four text requirements. They can simply avoid selecting novels and poetry, because these are no longer mandatory.
It is easier for students wanting an ATAR to take the less demanding English course
The status of the previously non-ATAR English Studies course has now been reversed. Any student can now enrol in this far less demanding English course ( designed for students not wishing to proceed to university) and receive an ATAR.
The McGaw Reforms in the 1990s were prompted by this very issue of students electing to enrol in far less rigorous English courses. The McGaw reforms were all about raising expectations and encouraging enrolment in more rigorous courses. Now, 20 years on, the floodgates have been re-opened to allow any student to take the less demanding English course to maximise their marks in English.
Educators want to know why NESA has made these changes
The question of course is ‘why’? Why and on what basis have these ill-informed decisions been made? Where is the research-based evidence to justify such a watering-down of HSC English? Where is the evidence from consultations with the profession and community that a majority called for the ditching of the requirement to study novels and poetry?
Since when, and why, did the obligation to ensure our young people in Year 12 engage with Australian and international novels and poetry cease to matter?
My colleagues and I, including former Chief Examiners of HSC English and members of syllabus and text list committees, raised these and other critical matters with NESA during the consultation period. The NESA Consultation Reports do not include any reference to these submissions and the key concerns raised. Likewise, there was widespread concern in the English teaching community about the potential optionalising of fiction and poetry. The Consultation Report on Advanced English, for example, notes teachers’ view that “text requirements should include a requirement to study a drama text other than Shakespearean drama and film, digital and multimodal texts. Prose fiction and print non-fiction should be uncoupled.” (p. 14). This concern has not been addressed, nor even recognised, in the ‘action’ column of the Consultation Report.
Those of us who continue to value the place of literature and the arts, in schools and in the broader community, are appalled at the prospect of our Year 12 students completing their HSC in English without having read a novel or a single line of poetry.
Erasmus, way back in the 1400s, and countless others before and since, noted that the path to finely-honed literacy skills and critical thinking is (in part) through exposure to the masters of the language, including our novelists and poets.
The growing evidence from educational and neuroscientific research not only confirms but also deepens the argument for the myriad of cognitive and affective benefits of reading literature. There is a relationship between the engagement with literature and the development of ‘multiple complex cognitive functions’ and empathy.
As professor of English at the University of Kentucky and well-known author Linda Zunshine puts it: ‘if you want nonstop high-level socio-cognitive complexity, simultaneous with nonstop active reorganisation of perceptions and inferences, only fiction delivers’.
PISA results confirm that the more a young person reads long-form literature for pleasure, the better they become at higher-order critical and creative thinking. Evidence from the OECD tells us that regardless of background and parental occupational status, those students who are highly engaged in reading achieved reading scores that were the equivalent of one-and-a-half years ahead of the OECD average.
The opportunity to read literature in English is not merely a matter for philosophical debate: evidence points to its vital role in raising all students’ educational achievement and life-chances. This is what author Janette Winterson describes as the capacity for literature and the arts to feed the ‘inside’ of life. To ‘change the way we think and feel.’ To stir us to imagine that life can be ‘otherwise’ – for better or worse. To foster imaginative and creative thinking. To generate the impetus for change on the ‘outside’.
So when it comes to the HSC English syllabus, NESA can’t have it both ways. It cannot in one breath make claims for maintaining or increasing rigour, and at the same time dumb-down the pre-existing content requirements in HSC English. It is either committed to stronger HSC standards in English through the requirement to engage with literature in its key forms, or it is not. The new syllabus, by any measure, indicates it is not.
Only through the restoration of the requirement that all of our young people engage with novels and poetry in Year 12 (and we’re talking about just one novel and one set of poems) will NESA have any justification for its claims for rigour and stronger HSC standards in the HSC English syllabus.
Jackie Manuel is Associate Professor in English Education in the Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. She is the Program Director for the Master of Teaching (Secondary), coordinator of secondary English curriculum and an Affiliate of the Department of English.
Jackie has published widely in the field of English Education and her research interests and projects include new teacher motivation; teenagers and reading; creativity in English education; and the history of English curriculum. She has been Chief Examiner of NSW Higher School Certificate English (Standard and Advanced), and a member of the former NSW Board of Studies (2007-2013) where she was Chair of Board curriculum and text list committees.