Evoking Equity in English curriculum: Historical perspectives and present possibilities

Year: 2016

Author: Sawyer, Wayne, Gannon, Susanne

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This presentation explores how English curriculum has, overtly and covertly, been connected with the socioeconomic status of the students who study it. It asks whether, to what extent and through what processes has English in secondary school been evoked as a site of moral and intellectual training for young people from particular backgrounds, and/or as a curricular site with particular affordances for the expression and exploration of non-hegemonic subjectivities and knowledges. The “passage through curriculum” is at the same time both “a transformative practice” and a “dividing practice” such that “it produces and reproduces inequalities, differences, distinction” (Green, 2003, 28). How might this have been interpreted and played out for young people from backgrounds of poverty? The presentation will firstly examine particular moments in the history of secondary English curriculum from particular jurisdictions. Our key question will be the extent to which major issues in English curriculum can be represented historically as issues of equity, equality and class. In England, for example, the massification of secondary education in the new comprehensive secondary school brought responsive curriculum design to the centre of teachers’ work. While “models” can never tell a whole story, the moment of “Growth”, for example, did put into the professional discourse a more overt attempts to develop an English “close to (student’s) own lives” (Medway et al., 2014, 145). How does such a move relate to recent calls for the inclusion of student “funds of knowledge” and “life-worlds” in high poverty contexts (e.g. Zipin et al, 2012), especially when a discourse of entitlement so often positions equity as function of curriculum more than pedagogy? Literature, for example, has been often claimed as part of a “humanising” endeavour in English curriculum. Newbolt’s playing up of the role of vernacular literature can be seen as a quite ambiguous intervention into curriculum, precisely in terms of class. Moreover, English more generally has been seen to do identity work, to focus on “self-formation, self-reflection and self-problematization” in order to produce “the sensitive, empathic and tolerant citizen” (Patterson, 2000, 236). How is that played out in schools serving poor communities? What is the effect of the curricular emphasis on literacy more generally doing in those schools? And overall, what traces of each of these discourses persist in contemporary contexts for English?