Why is NSW dumbing down HSC English? ( no novels, no poetry required)

By Jackie Manuel

I am deeply concerned about changes to the HSC English syllabus. Contrary to public statements by the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) about increasing rigor, I believe the changes dumb-down the senior English curriculum in alarming ways.

The most concerning changes

Students will no longer be required to study a novel and poetry

Prior to the changes all students in NSW were required to study a novel and poetry in Year 12 English. All students had the opportunity to engage with ‘great literature’ and the big ideas about the human condition that it invites. But now, for the first time in the history of HSC English in this state, the study of novels and poetry is optional.

NESA claimed that the works of Dickens, Austen and Conrad would now be mandatory, heralding a return of ‘great literature’. NESA President, Mr Alegounarias was reported as saying, “in English, for example, Shakespeare or the equivalent other aspects of great literature will be mandatory.”

These claims are simply inaccurate. Here’s why.

Prior to the changes announced last week, the study of prose fiction was indeed mandatory for all students in ATAR HSC English courses. Until the changes announced last week, this mandatory requirement has been the case in NSW English for over 100 years. Similarly, Shakespearean drama has been mandatory for all students in Advanced English. No change there.

But now, the study of prose fiction – ‘great literature’ – is optional. Now, no student is obliged to read a novel anymore to fulfil the requirements for HSC English.

Before these recent changes, all students had to select a prose fiction text from the prescribed text lists accompanying the syllabus. These text lists included the novels of international authors such as Dickens, Austen, Conrad, the Brontës, Shelley, Lawrence, Hardy, Twain, Steinbeck, Orwell, Huxley, Fitzgerald, Woolf, Bradbury, Salinger, Calvino, Dessaix, Lahiri, Le Guin, Haddon, and Ondatje. Just to name a few.

These examples of ‘great literature’ have populated the English text lists for generations. Suddenly, they have been stripped of their core status and rendered optional. Likewise, the ‘great literature’ of Australian writers such as Patrick White, Tim Winton, Peter Carey, and David Malouf, or poets such as Wilfred Owen, WH Auden, William Blake, Banjo Paterson, Judith Wright, and Oodgeroo Noonuccal. They are all now in the options basket.

So, regardless of what authors may be on the prescribed text list (which has yet to be released), there is no requirement to select a single novel or a single set of poems from the text list, because novels and poetry are now an option.

The long-standing requirement, in place since 1911, for all final year HSC English students in NSW to engage with novels and poetry, has been scrapped. I believe this change will send a strong message to students, teachers and the community that fiction and poetry, two of the most sophisticated forms of human expression in language, do not really matter. This change undermines the potential for enhancing higher-order, transferrable critical thinking, language, writing, problem-solving, and analytical skills that such engagement with literature promotes.

Reduction in texts that need to be studied

There is also a reduction in the number of texts for study in English. The mandatory requirement has been reduced from four to three texts for Standard English, and from five to four texts in Advanced English.

In Standard English, for example, students can now select to study a film, a play and a set of speeches in their final year of English. Novels and poetry are no longer mandatory. In Advanced English, students must study a Shakespearean drama and can then select to study, for example, a film, speeches and drama to fulfil their four text requirements. They can simply avoid selecting novels and poetry, because these are no longer mandatory.

It is easier for students wanting an ATAR to take the less demanding English course

The status of the previously non-ATAR English Studies course has now been reversed. Any student can now enrol in this far less demanding English course ( designed for students not wishing to proceed to university) and receive an ATAR.

The McGaw Reforms in the 1990s were prompted by this very issue of students electing to enrol in far less rigorous English courses. The McGaw reforms were all about raising expectations and encouraging enrolment in more rigorous courses. Now, 20 years on, the floodgates have been re-opened to allow any student to take the less demanding English course to maximise their marks in English.

Educators want to know why NESA has made these changes

The question of course is ‘why’? Why and on what basis have these ill-informed decisions been made? Where is the research-based evidence to justify such a watering-down of HSC English? Where is the evidence from consultations with the profession and community that a majority called for the ditching of the requirement to study novels and poetry?

Since when, and why, did the obligation to ensure our young people in Year 12 engage with Australian and international novels and poetry cease to matter?

My colleagues and I, including former Chief Examiners of HSC English and members of syllabus and text list committees, raised these and other critical matters with NESA during the consultation period. The NESA Consultation Reports do not include any reference to these submissions and the key concerns raised. Likewise, there was widespread concern in the English teaching community about the potential optionalising of fiction and poetry. The Consultation Report on Advanced English, for example, notes teachers’ view that “text requirements should include a requirement to study a drama text other than Shakespearean drama and film, digital and multimodal texts. Prose fiction and print non-fiction should be uncoupled.” (p. 14). This concern has not been addressed, nor even recognised, in the ‘action’ column of the Consultation Report.

Those of us who continue to value the place of literature and the arts, in schools and in the broader community, are appalled at the prospect of our Year 12 students completing their HSC in English without having read a novel or a single line of poetry.

Erasmus, way back in the 1400s, and countless others before and since, noted that the path to finely-honed literacy skills and critical thinking is (in part) through exposure to the masters of the language, including our novelists and poets.

The growing evidence from educational and neuroscientific research not only confirms but also deepens the argument for the myriad of cognitive and affective benefits of reading literature. There is a relationship between the engagement with literature and the development of ‘multiple complex cognitive functions’ and empathy.

As professor of English at the University of Kentucky and well-known author Linda Zunshine puts it: ‘if you want nonstop high-level socio-cognitive complexity, simultaneous with nonstop active reorganisation of perceptions and inferences, only fiction delivers’.

PISA results confirm that the more a young person reads long-form literature for pleasure, the better they become at higher-order critical and creative thinking. Evidence from the OECD tells us that regardless of background and parental occupational status, those students who are highly engaged in reading achieved reading scores that were the equivalent of one-and-a-half years ahead of the OECD average.

The opportunity to read literature in English is not merely a matter for philosophical debate: evidence points to its vital role in raising all students’ educational achievement and life-chances. This is what author Janette Winterson describes as the capacity for literature and the arts to feed the ‘inside’ of life. To ‘change the way we think and feel.’ To stir us to imagine that life can be ‘otherwise’ – for better or worse. To foster imaginative and creative thinking. To generate the impetus for change on the ‘outside’.

So when it comes to the HSC English syllabus, NESA can’t have it both ways. It cannot in one breath make claims for maintaining or increasing rigour, and at the same time dumb-down the pre-existing content requirements in HSC English. It is either committed to stronger HSC standards in English through the requirement to engage with literature in its key forms, or it is not. The new syllabus, by any measure, indicates it is not.

Only through the restoration of the requirement that all of our young people engage with novels and poetry in Year 12 (and we’re talking about just one novel and one set of poems) will NESA have any justification for its claims for rigour and stronger HSC standards in the HSC English syllabus.


Jackie Manuel is Associate Professor in English Education in the Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. She is the Program Director for the Master of Teaching (Secondary), coordinator of secondary English curriculum and an Affiliate of the Department of English.

Jackie has published widely in the field of English Education and her research interests and projects include new teacher motivation; teenagers and reading; creativity in English education; and the history of English curriculum. She has been Chief Examiner of NSW Higher School Certificate English (Standard and Advanced), and a member of the former NSW Board of Studies (2007-2013) where she was Chair of Board curriculum and text list committees.



Last week (end of March 2017) NESA did a back-flip and announced a new ruling “to clarify the requirement to study a novel in Year 12 in English”.

Read about it here.

8 thoughts on “Why is NSW dumbing down HSC English? ( no novels, no poetry required)

  1. Paul Hancock says:

    As an experienced English teacher, I am happy to see the sociological bent and artificial themes disappear. Fitting some texts into the topics they are assigned to Is a tough ask. Modules A and C in the present Advanced course tend to be exercises in fitting square pegs into round holes. I also believe that examining creative writing under exam conditions is unrealistic. Expecting stressed students to produce original creative works in 40 minutes is ridiculous. It is the part that my Standard and Advanced students struggle with most. It should be limited to the Extension courses.

  2. Jackie Manuel says:

    Thanks, Paul. You raise a number of important points. The pressure of the examination is certainly a constant influence on teaching and learning in the senior years. All the best with your classes this year.

  3. Brian Cambourne says:

    You pose some vital questions for which we need both answers and evidence.

  4. Jackie Manuel says:

    Thanks for your comment, Brian. Best wishes.

  5. Deb McPherson says:

    As a former NSW Board of Studies curriculum officer (English) a former Manager of English for the NSW Department of Education, a former Deputy Principal and secondary English teacher for over twenty five years I fully support Dr Manuel’s remarks and share her concerns. NESA needs to consider the growing opposition to these changes which devalue the study of prose fiction and poetry and reduce the rigour and depth of English at HSC level. Their consultation report does not do that.

  6. Jackie Manuel says:

    Thanks for your comments, Deb. Your extensive experience and expertise in the field contributes a valuable perspective to these debates. Best wishes.

  7. mc says:

    While psychology, sociology and logic can be taught by reading novels, other methods are (for most students) more efficient. Novels shouldn’t be the only tool used to teach these things to any given student.

    Literacy skills are certainly improved by the studying of the highest quality literature, though not all the best literature is fiction. If the aim of a particular amount of learning time allocated is to equip students to better understand the human world, there are many strong competitors to novels for that time. If an aim is to teach students how to create new ideas through writing, then they had better be given ample opportunity to write and re-write and re-write.

  8. Jackie Manuel says:

    Thanks for your perspective, mc. I think we’d agree that there are many paths to developing highly-accomplished language use. Across the curriculum, there is a range of disciplines (each with its own distinctive way of naming, framing and interpreting human experience, the world and knowledge). English is one component of the curriculum, and of course, within this subject the aim is to develop all students’ writing ability, critical thinking and creative capacities. All subjects aim for these outcomes, and yes, English is the place where extended time can be devoted to enhancing writing skills, and thereby boosting confidence and accomplishment in language use in all its modes, for a broad range of purposes. Your comments are appreciated. Best wishes.

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