Ann Kronbergs, who has recently joined the Orwell Society Committee with an interest in education, offers this overview
George Orwell and the 21st Century Secondary School Curriculum
How far does the curriculum encourage access to George Orwell’s work in our schools in England and Wales? Here follows a brief review of the current exam-based curriculum in England and Wales for English, English Language, and History, giving an encouraging picture of the representation of the writer’s work.
Access to Orwell is encouraged in the last year of Primary School when Year 6 students, using the Eleven Plus Classic Book List, find The Road to Wigan Pier and Animal Farm on the recommended reading list of English classics. The Road to Wigan Pier has been used in extract form on a past paper for the English comprehension element of the Eleven plus.
For Year 10 and 11 students, Animal Farm is also one of the four or five prescribed texts for study for the Modern Prose question in the recently revised (2015) English Literature GCSE specification for AQA, Edexcel and OCR . Among the other prescribed texts are: Lord of the Flies (William Golding), Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro), and Anita and Me (Meera Syal). There is a wealth of online student-friendly teaching resources available to support the study of Orwell’s novel, from the BBC’s Bitesize Revision notes to a range of downloadable teaching resources available at Teachit.Co.UK and also at Tes Teaching Resources. In addition, editors of current GCSE English Language study guides (endorsed by leading exam boards) have used passages from Road to Wigan Pier and “How the Poor Die” in sample exam-style questions.
Students in Year 12 will discover Ninety Eighty-Four alongside other dystopian fiction titles on the prescribed reading list for the coursework module for AQA’s A-level English Literature. Meanwhile EDEXCEL’s specification for this A-level coursework element includes Homage to Catalonia alongside other prescribed works of literary reportage such as Dispatches by Michael Kerr. The required coursework outcome for both boards is an extended essay comparing and analysing matters of context, structure and style of the two texts selected by the student.
The Cambridge Pre-U exam (CIE) contains a Personal Investigation (Paper 4) requiring the comparison of two main and two subsidiary texts. Subject to the board’s approval, candidates are free to select any titles, and topics, for investigation. The following works by George Orwell have been included for analysis in candidates’ investigations: Nineteen Eighty-Four, Animal Farm, Coming Up for Air, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Burmese Days, and Homage to Catalonia.
Specifications for A-level English Language and Literature also include opportunity for the study and analysis of the language of Orwell’s novels, essays and ‘life-writing’ such as Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier.
For the study of GCSE and A-level history, Orwell’s work (his essays, literary reportage and novels) remains relevant and appears, on occasion, as primary source material in exam papers, or as secondary source material on recommended reading lists. The famous quotation: Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past (Nineteen Eighty-Four) is, unsurprisingly, a familiar sight in many school history departments.
This overview shows how the full range of George Orwell’s work is represented within the current exam-based curriculum in England and Wales for English Language, Literature and History. It is difficult to find a single other writer in this position whose work can be studied both for its literary merit and quality of its historical and political ideas. As we know, Eric Blair was an exceptionally tall man, and it now seems that, in the view of the examinations establishment, at least, George Orwell stands head and shoulders above other great English prose writers for the quality and scope of his work.