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What do you do with a BA in English?

With English Literature GCSE and A Level results consistently above the national average and students setting their sights on English degrees at Oxford, Rendcomb College’s Head of English, Miss Sarah Jones, tells us about how the department builds on the literary foundations set in the Junior School and how we look to local independent bookshops for inspiration:

Schools around the globe are celebrating World Book Day this week and it’s such fun seeing children in the Junior School (and their parents!) enter into the literary spirit with excellent fancy dress. Events such as this are a wonderful opportunity to celebrate everything about books. When pupils move up into the Senior School, we strive to keep their interest in reading and literature going through a number of initiatives throughout the year.

Ofqual reported in 2018 that the number of students taking A Levels in English and humanities was declining but, although Rendcomb is a small school, we always have a keen cohort taking the subject. Going on to study an undergraduate degree in English also opens doors to a whole range of careers. English students think analytically and GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 look for these skills in candidates applying for their graduate programmes. They’re also able to think about the bigger picture, understand historical context, construct essays and persuasive writing and have empathy. With a BA in English, roles in business, journalism, marketing, education, law and finance are available, to name just a few.

Sparking an interest in literature is so important in the younger years and, from Year 7, we arrange regular visits and trips such as to the Cheltenham Literature Festival. Pupils are able to meet authors and attend masterclasses and talks to enrich their learning.

We have a number of weekly activities such as the ‘Rendcomb Torch’ which is a pupil-run blog; they research and write about current affairs, school events and upload recipes, jokes and photos. We also have a ‘Scribblers Unite’ creative writing class and our older students can join the ‘Debating Club’. The debate topics are broad and the students are given a week to prepare their arguments. Once the debate takes place and a winning side is established, the students analyse how the debate was won.

As a department, we look to our local independent bookshops to enhance the range of texts our students have access to. Our main supplier is Octavia’s Bookshop in Cirencester and we also work with the  Yellow Lighted Bookshop in Tetbury and Nailsworth.

We make regular trips to Octavia’s and work with her and gain from her expert knowledge of latest releases and popular titles to make informed decisions about class readers and independent reading suggestions. We use her shop for adding to our ‘young adult’ reader section within the department. Her support of our literary events is invaluable too and she often awards token prizes for our students.

One of our Year 12 students, Ella Lister (pictured below), has taken our link with Octavia’s one step further and she has been a member of the shop’s monthly book club for more than 10 years. Now in the ‘Teen Group,’ Octavia picks out titles for the group and they help to write reviews for the store’s shelves to encourage other readers to try something new. Ella said: “My dream, one day, is to write a historical non-fiction book about the links between society now and a hundred years ago. As a child, I found that reading took me to another world and I enjoyed escaping reality with the characters.”

In the Sixth Form, we take our English Literature students on a residential ‘Literary House Party’ where they visit landmarks and locations steeped in literary history. This year we visited Stratford-Upon-Avon, Oxford and Blenheim for our weekend of literary immersion. During the trip we spent time with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the RSC, the Bodleian Library and went on a literary walking tour of Oxford. The weekend concluded with a visit to Blenheim Palace where we engaged with Capability Brown’s landscape to inform our reading of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia.

We were particularly looking forward to visiting the Bodleian Library in Oxford because the famed librarian and son of a gardener, David Vaisey (B.1935), is a former Rendcomb College student. He went from Rendcomb to study Modern History at Exeter College, Oxford and in 1986, was appointed Bodley’s Librarian. On his retirement in 1996, he was given the title ‘Bodley’s Library Emeritus’.

We work with The Yellow Lighted Bookshop closely in the lead up to and during World Book Day. We run a ‘Big Book Quiz’ for all students across the Junior and Senior Schools which covers both general and specific book knowledge. There’s something for everyone and we look at asking questions on childhood favourites, horror, crime and many other genres. There’s a fun picture round where students have to guess the book from the cover with its title removed and a clay-moulding round; we’ve seen a whole scene from Harry Potter in the past! We always invite Octavia’s or another local bookshop to set up a stall to provide the students with an opportunity to purchase books during the break.

Literature is more than just studying texts for GCSE or A Level, it is a living, breathing part of our everyday life and this is what we strive to encourage within the Department. We strongly feel that students, whether taking Literature or not, gain a great deal from literary immersion in whichever form they choose to participate in. We are also extremely pleased that students arrive from the Junior School with such an embedded passion for reading and, through our initiatives (such as the 25 book challenge), we aim to keep this thirst for immersion pulsing through each day.

As students across the College head in to our Readathon challenge (7th March -29th April), we remember the Read for Good’s charity statement from Julia Donaldson: “inspiring children to read is one of the greatest gifts that you can give them”, and both current students and our past Old Rendcombians can absolutely vouch for that.