Professor Helen Fulton, Head of the University English department, has openly criticised the national curriculum for emphasising “skills rather than knowledge.” Fulton claimed that several top A-level students believe that “Charles Dickens is just as old as William Shakespeare”.
Fulton’s comments were reported in an article by The Daily Mail. At a Westminster Education Forum seminar, Fulton claimed that many students cannot place major works of literature in their historical context and prefer to stick to texts they have already read during their A-Level studies.
Second year English Literature student Brandon Seager told Nouse, “I do think Helen is right in thinking that chronology is important, students do need to be able to place texts in their literary contexts.”
Fulton attacked the Key Stage four (14–16) specification in particular and said that it ‘seems to emphasise skills rather than knowledge…I would have thought it should be the other way round at Key Stage Four… By then, you would expect the skills to be there and you actually want to start broadening the knowledge of the students in terms of the range of texts and the historical development of language in literature as well so there’s some clear sense of chronology.’
Another second year English Literature student commented, “I think this is a massive generalisation, it’s really unfair to assume York English students are so ignorant.”
Fulton told Nouse, “York English students are among the best in the country, and in general they are very well prepared for university study. What we do in the department is expand their comfort zones significantly by offering a wide range of texts located in historical, literary and cultural contexts. The cultural knowledge that students bring with them to York varies across each cohort, and part of our job is to fill in the gaps. Helping bright students make sense of new information is one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching in this department.”
Currently Key Stage Four pupils must study two plays by Shakespeare; representative Romantic poetry; a 19th century novel; First World War poetry; British states that student should “read for understanding” by “distinguishing between main and subsidiary themes and summarising texts”.
The English and Related Literature department currently offers students a wide range of modules with the condition that each student should take at least one module from each time period. In 2011, required reading for all first year students included William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a widely taught text at GCSE and A Level.
English students at York are allowed to choose which texts they write assessments on. Fulton blamed the national curriculum for the fact that some students find it, “much easier to dash something off on a Shakespeare play that they’ve already studied for A-level.”
The professor of medieval literature claimed that a number of students were “reluctant to go outside zone because they’re afraid they won’t be able to write on something they’re not familiar with.”
Fulton also suggested that technology is having a detrimental effect. “They’re consuming short texts, video games, computer based texts – they’re not narratives in the classic realist sense.”