If We Could Set the GCSE English Curriculum…

With so much fantastic literature to choose from, setting a GCSE English curriculum is not a simple task.

Selecting representative works from different periods of literary history, when there are so many fine examples to choose from, is only part of what makes it a challenge. For GCSE set texts should also be accessible to teenagers, inspiring them rather than turning them off, teaching them about different literary techniques, and deepening their appreciation of literature by forcing them to think about layers of meaning. Our curriculum, as outlined in this article, concentrates on equipping teenagers with a broad overview of different genres and periods of literary history, and on literary techniques, but it also tries to focus on texts that are enjoyable enough to read that they don’t put teenagers off English for life. Some of the literature we’ve chosen is already on the GCSE English curriculum, and there are probably too many novels here realistically to be able to study within a two-year course, but at least it provides some choice.

Pre-20th century drama

William Shakespeare – Henry IV Parts 1 and 2

It goes without saying that Shakespeare is an essential element of any English curriculum, but we’re putting a different couple of plays onto the curriculum from the standard Macbeth and Hamlet. Henry IV Part I is often said to be one of the playwright’s finest plays, and it’s best appreciated with Part II, so we’re putting that one on too. The plays have a tremendously varied cast of characters, from the serious King Henry – struggling with the metaphorical weight of the crown upon his head – to the mischievous knight Falsaff, who’s one of Shakespeare’s most popular characters. It’s a great pair of plays for understanding the huge spectrum of Shakespeare’s writing abilities, as well as for understanding Elizabethan audiences. It’s very funny, too.

Christopher Marlowe – Dr Faustus

It’s easy to forget that Shakespeare wasn’t the only famous Elizabethan playwright. We’re putting Dr Faustus onto the curriculum because it’s an interesting play to read, full of emotional conflict, and because it sheds light on Elizabethan concerns about and perception of the afterlife.

20th and 21st-century drama

George Bernard Shaw – Pygmalion

This tale of a Cockney girl transformed into a lady through the art of elocution is a 20th-century classic that everyone should have read. Inspired by Greek mythology, it’s a good play to contrast with the earlier plays mentioned above, both in terms of its subject matter and the difference in stage directions and set instructions, which are far more detailed than the scant information provided by Elizabethan playwrights.

Alan Bennett – The History Boys

Alan Bennett’s most famous play is The History Boys, a gently humorous tale of a group of history students who want to apply to Oxford and Cambridge – and the teachers who help them. You may know The History Boys from the successful movie adaptation that came out a few years ago, but before that it was also a very popular stage production that premiered in 2004. As such, it’s a good example of theatre brought right up to date (though it’s set in the 1980s) – and it’s a subject matter that has obvious relevance for GCSE students starting to think about university.

Pre-20th century prose

Jane Austen – Northanger Abbey

One of Jane Austen’s more underrated novels, Northanger Abbey is set partly in Bath and partly in a Gothic country house, where the novel’s heroine – inspired by her own reading of Gothic literature – lets her imagination run wild. It’s great fun, but worthy of a place on the curriculum because it also contains Austen’s usual fascinating wealth of social commentary.

Elizabeth Gaskell – North and South

Born seven years before Jane Austen’s death, Elizabeth Gaskell was an important Victorian novelist whose works (all serialised by the BBC) include Wives and Daughters, Cranford and North and South. The latter is worthy of a place on the GCSE English curriculum because it’s a good example of a social novel – one that makes a comment on a social problem. In this case, the problem highlighted is the terrible living conditions of the urban poor, who worked very long hours in the cotton mills of Northern England during the Industrial Revolution. In particular, it focuses on the strained relationship between workers and often cruel employers – a much harsher setting for a romance than any of Jane Austen’s novels.

Emily Brontë – Wuthering Heights

As our English curriculum demonstrates, many of the brilliant pre-20th century novels were written by women, even if they often had to disguise themselves as men to be taken seriously. Such was the case with Emily Brontë and her sisters, who published under male pseudonyms at the time, but are now known by their real names. It was hard to choose just one of their works, but Wuthering Heights is arguably the greatest. As well as being a gripping tale of passion set on the wild Yorkshire moors, it’s an exercise in characterisation, narrative style and imagery that makes it a great introduction to literary techniques for GCSE English students.

Dickens – Great Expectations

Dickens is a lot funnier than most teenagers seem to believe, though that could be because they’ve been put off by uninspiring teaching. Arguably Dickens’ greatest novel, Great Expectations is humorous and packed with the imaginative and entertaining characters that made Dickens the literary celebrity of his day. But it’s also a coming-of-age novel with an important moral message that teenagers could learn a lot from.

20th century prose

E.M. Forster – A Room with a View

The most light-hearted and accessible of Forster’s novels, A Room with a View is a good GCSE-level introduction to the author’s works, that gives the reader plenty to think about at the same time as being an entertaining read. It’s the story of a young girl transfixed by Italy, and its contrast between the passion and drama of Italy and the stiff-upper-lipped, genteel (repressed) England provides an interesting social commentary on life in the Victorian period.

George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four

It would be hard to imagine a more influential novel than Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell’s bleak vision of a future in which government control is absolute and personal freedoms are non-existent – to the point where it’s a crime even to think the wrong things. The origin of now everyday expressions such as “Big Brother” and “Room 101”, it’s a depressing but essential item on the GCSE reading list.

Susan Hill – I’m the King of the Castle

Susan Hill’s tale of how cruel young boys can be is set in a series of foreboding environments that are expertly crafted, providing an excellent introduction to the art of creating mood through words. For thematic comparison, read this with Lord of the Flies by William Golding, a current GCSE English staple.

Mark Haddon – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Told from the perspective of a teenager who lies somewhere on the autistic spectrum, this is an eye-opening novel that provides an insight into the workings of an autistic mind. Its author claims that it isn’t a book about Asperger’s syndrome, though the reader assumes that this is what the novel’s narrator has; he says it’s a book about difference, and being an outsider. Perhaps, then, greater tolerance, sensitivity and understanding might arise from this book being more widely read among teenagers.

Anne Tyler – The Accidental Tourist

Anne Tyler is an American novelist whose work is refreshingly real. The Accidental Tourist won numerous awards when it was published in 1985, and, reading Tyler’s masterful prose, it’s not hard to see why. She creates plausible characters and places them in realistic, everyday situations, but does it so effortlessly that GCSE pupils will find it challenging to unpick just how she manages it.

Bill Bryson – Notes from a Small Island

The only work of non-fiction on this list is included because it demonstrates the art of comic writing, and it’s from another American writer. Bill Bryson is no ordinary travel-writer; his work is infused with gentle humour and he has a knack for describing even the most mundane of places in an interesting and funny way that makes you see the world in a different way.


John Keats – Ode to Autumn

The archetypal Romantic poem in the ‘literary movement’ sense of the word ‘Romantic’, we believe that Keats’ evocative Ode to Autumn should be studied in the first term of the year, when it is actually autumn, to gain a fuller appreciation of the beauty of the season this poem describes.

Christopher Marlowe – The Passionate Young Shepherd to His Love and John Donne – The Bait

We propose these two as a pair, as the latter answers the former. Marlowe’s poem is an early example of pastoral verse, and it details a shepherd’s promises of an idyllic life for the woman he woos. Beautiful though it sounds, the reader is acutely aware that it’s also incredibly unrealistic. John Donne’s reply, The Bait, is more cynical, and makes use of an extended metaphor that compares courting a woman with catching a fish. There were other replies, too, also worth studying in conjunction with this; the most notable is that by Walter Raleigh, The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd.

William Shakespeare – Sonnet 27

Shakespeare wrote poetry as well as plays, and Sonnet 27 is a beautiful example of the poetic form he’s best known for. It describes that feeling we’ve probably all experienced, of going to bed exhausted, but being unable to sleep for thinking about the object of our affections.

William Blake – “And did those feet in ancient time”

Everyone knows this William Blake poem as the song Jerusalem (the poem was set to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916), often played at weddings and other special occasions. It’s an often misunderstood poem, yet its popularity and the stories behind it make it worthy of a closer look by the GCSE student. Its “dark satanic mills” can be cross-referenced against Elizabeth Gaskell’s writing about the mills in North and South.
Siegfried Sassoon – Trench Duty
It’s another sonnet, but Siegfried Sassoon’s Trench Duty couldn’t be more different from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 27. This interesting comparison is a useful way of learning how the poetic form can be exploited to different ends, and how form itself can be used to make an ironic comment on the subject of a poem. This poem is also a good introduction to the work of one of the most famous First World War poets.

Philip Larkin – MCMXIV

Larkin is so well-known for his melancholy outlook on life in general that many forget that a poem about the First World War was among his most famous collection, The Whitsun Weddings. MCMXIV is the date 1914 in Roman numerals, and this poignant poem describes eager young men enlisting in the army. With a loss of innocence as its theme, this poem is a superb demonstration of Larkin’s masterful use of words, as well as being a moving comment on the human cost of the war.

Robert Frost – Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

This enchanting poem by the American poet Robert Frost is both an illustration that poetry can be enjoyable to read, and a demonstration that even apparently simple poems have more meaning that you might initially suppose from a first reading. The more you read it, the more you understand from it, and its final two lines – a repetition of “And miles to go before I sleep” – are often said to be the most famous examples of repetition in all poetry.

W.H. Auden – The More Loving One

We end with a poem that’s sure to appeal to love-sick teenagers everywhere. W.H. Auden was born in England but later became an American citizen, and his poem The More Loving One has been providing comfort to those afflicted with unrequited love since the 1950s. “If equal affection cannot be”, concludes the poem, “Let the more loving one be me.” We’ve included this poem because it shows that poetry can be relevant to real life, and can often feel as though it was written about us; many teenagers dread studying poetry, but this is one that we think they’ll be able to relate to.