Our aspiration for the study of English is that it should offer boys a way of understanding people, with all their emotions and motivations; of understanding our country and its vast literary heritage; and of understanding the wider world, with its diverse inter-relationships and modes of communication.
Furthermore, we want the boys to read! Books, texts, advertising… indeed anything of value so that they think about how people are presented and how the language used is dynamic, exciting and ever-changing. Pupils examine a variety of texts and these span the centuries, from Beowulf – arguably the oldest text in the English language – to Atonement, a 21st-century work studied at A-level. We aim to help them find a type or genre of literature which they enjoy reading, be that novels, poetry or high-quality magazine articles, and to appreciate that reading is, tout court, a great use of one’s time.
Language and literature bring readers into contact with important opinions and perspectives, whether those are political, such as Animal Farm, or intensely personal – Boy, Lord of the Flies or The Catcher in the Rye. Boys learn about people and ideas that go beyond purely British or European cultures. And texts can help boys develop empathy towards the viewpoints of others. Hence, we discuss controversial issues in challenging texts; for example, regicide in Macbeth, man’s darker side in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or issues of political or personal conflict in poetry.
Literature starts with plot and character, but we show pupils that there is also a craft behind texts that we can enjoy studying and use to understand the world around us. We look at how texts are written, the choices that writers make and how comparisons can be made between various approaches.
While we understand that a blind eye is often turned to grammatical precision in modern communications – social media and the like – we believe that accurate spelling, punctuation and grammar can still get the writer noticed and help him make progress in life.
Moreover, the maxim that ‘quantity does not always mean quality’ really is an important one. Therefore, while offering opportunities for extended writing, we also work on the ability to be succinct and precise, and to use language economically.
We believe that texts should not just be read on a page; the ‘performance text’ is a crucial part of what we do. We are keen for pupils to learn about texts through dramatic performances and work closely with the Drama department to allow performers to visit us and to provide opportunities for our boys to perform. Shakespeare is studied in the Lower School, at GCSE level and in the Sixth Form.
Our priorities include enabling our boys to become excellent communicators of the spoken word. English lessons are based on the essentiality of discussing and debating issues at every opportunity. Through the cut and thrust of such debate, boys learn that they can argue forcibly and passionately, yet without jeopardising friendships. They learn, too, the importance of the use of anecdote in working with, and eventually managing, people, as well as grasping the power of language; how just one word or comment can change someone’s destiny, whether in Romeo and Juliet or in real life.
Finally, we want our boys to use language effectively in social contexts, to share stories, to be witty and (where appropriate!) to make people laugh. That aim extends to all pupils: we help those who do not necessarily see themselves as the wit or entertainer in a group to find their level, to become more confident and to communicate verbally in a way that suits them.
Technology is used quite extensively in English lessons. For instance, when studying poetic texts, IT is deployed to link images to words, recognising that boys are often visual learners.
We link with various departments to help boys gain a deeper understanding of texts – for example, with Geography, for the geographical structure represented in Steinbeck’s work, or with History, for the social and historical context behind J B Priestley’s classic play, An Inspector Calls.
In addition to the abundant extra-curricular opportunities available in drama, we have a Scrabble club, while The Queen’s Library offers opportunities across all the year groups.