Exploring issues in secondary subject English: Reconnecting curriculum, policy and practice

By Dr Lorna Smith, School of Education, University of Bristol

The Victorian writer, philosopher and critic, John Ruskin, once invited his readers to ‘Commiserate [with] the hapless Board School child, shut out from dreamland and poetry, and prematurely hardened by the pressure of codes and formularies. He spends his years as a tale that is not told’ (Lawson & Silver, 1973, p. 330). But what tale could be told of today’s hapless secondary state-school student of English in England, who might be similarly shut out from dreamland and poetry and prematurely hardened and diminished by the pressure of narrow assessment objectives?

While the current national curriculum for English emphasises the ‘pre-eminent’ place of English in education and society (p. 2) and ostensibly promotes both teaching a ‘love’ (p. 4) of reading and fluency in speech and writing, evidence suggests that opportunities in maintained secondary schools for students to enjoy talk, reading and writing are increasingly delimited. The pressures of accountability have resulted in some schools teaching topics and texts designed for GCSE examination (taken at age 16) to 11-year-olds, thereby denying them opportunities to experience English as broad, balanced, diverse, creative and humane – despite these themes being fundamental to subject English since its inception (Smith, 2023). The situation is exacerbated through requirements in the Core Content Framework and Early Career Framework to foreground ‘knowledge-rich’ pedagogies inappropriate for English that emphasise recall over exploration and understanding (Belas, 2023).

‘Some schools [have felt compelled to] teach topics and texts designed for GCSE examination to 11-year-olds, thereby denying them opportunities to experience English as broad, balanced, diverse, creative and humane.’

Such concerns gave rise to an English in Education special interest group conference, ‘Exploring Issues in English, Education and Social Justice: Current Trends in Research and Practice’, hosted by the University of Bedfordshire in June 2023. Contributors explored how current policy is enacted across the sector, and the impact of that enactment on both teachers and students. This BERA Blog special issue was inspired by that conference. The writers draw on recent scholarship to explain the state of the subject as they see it now and the challenges inherent; and begin to explore how English policy might be conceived in the future.

In his blog post, Robert Eaglestone builds on his influential article for the Impact journal, and invites us to reflect on English as a discipline. He argues that disciplines are not collections of inert ‘facts’ but are, instead, continuing conversations, transforming over time. As they grow, disciplines create ‘signature pedagogies’ and threshold concepts of a subject, and these bear implicit philosophies of knowledge appropriate to the subject. English too has developed through its own complex and profound tradition of thought. Eaglestone urges us to consider the deep understanding, or ‘disciplinary consciousness’, which comes from grasping concepts which arise as we teach English, and to ask searching questions of policy and other framings, and how we are using them.

On a related topic, Caroline Godfrey examines English policy through metaphors used to describe the subject, focusing on the ubiquitous image of the curriculum as a ‘journey’. She highlights how this is unhelpful both because a student’s experience of English is not necessarily a linear pathway, and because the journey metaphor has unhelpful associations with colonialism.

In her blog post, Rachel Roberts considers older students’ experience of English, reporting on a research project that invited sixth-form students (aged 17–18) to explain why they did (or did not) opt to study English at Advanced level. She shows that many generally enjoyed and appreciated English earlier in their schooling; however, the rigidity of GCSE English, a lack of opportunity to be creative – and the pernicious perception that qualifications in English are less valuable than those in STEM subjects – ultimately lead to some deciding against pursuing English beyond the age of 16, when it becomes optional.

Theo Maniski discusses our understanding of talk, given that complex verbal communication is our human ‘superpower’. Pointing out that talk is often sidelined in contemporary English classrooms due to curricular pressures, he argues that we should

be teaching students to appreciate the rules of speaking and listening that govern effective conversation (ironically, rules that are mostly unspoken), and that the English classroom is actually the best place to do so.

Examining a different facet of current policy, Jo Bowser-Angermann and Kayte Haselgrove both reflect on the impact of the requirement for those students who do not gain a pass grade in GCSE English Language – the ‘forgotten third’ – to resit the examination (sometimes repeatedly) until they do. In her focus from the perspective of the students, Jo Bowser-Angermann considers how to support them move on from seeing themselves as ‘failures’ as they work to achieve their grade 4. In the concluding post in this BERA Blog special issue, Kayte Haselgrove examines the issue from the perspective of new teachers in further education, considering how best to prepare them for the particular needs of resit students.

Together, we aspire to ensure that every child has a positive experience of English in school, as fundamental to a positive life experience beyond school.


Belas, O. (2023). Knowledge and English. Routledge.

Lawson, J., & Silver, H. (1973). A social history of education in England. Routledge.

Smith, L. (2023). Creativity in the English curriculum: Historical perspectives and future directions. Routledge.

This article was originally posted on the BERA blog:  Editorial: Exploring issues in secondary subject English: Reconnecting curriculum, policy and practice | BERA