Melanie McDonagh

Dropping poetry from GCSEs is a crying shame

Dropping poetry from GCSEs is a crying shame
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Just when you think it’s not actually possible for the Government to get things worse when it comes to schools and Covid, along comes Ofqual to make a fool of you by proving that yes, it is indeed possible for them to make an even bigger mess of things. Today we found out that it will be possible for GCSE students next year to do English literature without any poetry.

Ofqual, under its head, Sally Collier, consulted schools about whether they felt able to offer the same subjects as normal; not wholly surprisingly they said they didn’t…apparently they expressed 'significant concern' about their ability to cover all the subject areas. Well, knock me down with a girder.

So teachers can drop either poetry or the nineteenth century novel or fiction and drama after 1914. The only thing that’s actually obligatory is a Shakespeare play.

Look, my children have been doing all this stuff last year and in my daughter’s case I can’t tell you how teachers can conspire to kill poetry stone dead. To begin with they home first in on the poetry of Maya Angelou – the only poem she actually has by heart is the mesmerically annoying Pretty Woman. And when the focus is on the nineteenth century, it’s quite often done in a way that actually subverts the text. Let’s just say that a feminist reading of the Lady of Shalott is perfectly legitimate but if that’s all you get, you miss the entire point of why it’s haunting.

As for the syllabus, the inevitable grim insistence on inclusivity means that Ozymandias and My Last Duchess get precisely as much attention as the incomprehensible Tissue by Imtiaz Dharker, who was a bat squeak away from being Poet Laureate, and John Agard’s Checking out Me History, the quintessential BLM poem.

Still the important thing is that children are actually exposed to poetry, that in the middle of all the stuff which does not, as the late Auberon Waugh put it, rhyme, scan or make sense, they may encounter poetry which enters their heads and never goes away. I owe everything to the Irish Leaving Certificate syllabus which included Milton’s Lycidas and Chesterton’s Lepanto as well as WB Yeats and Patrick Kavanagh. I can never be grateful enough to those unnamed benefactors.

English Literature without poetry is a bird flying on one wing. The very fact that it’s even possible is terrible.

If Gavin Williamson wants to redeem his record of utter ineptitude in handling this crisis – don’t get me started on the actual exams – he should make Ofqual do a smartish about turn. And if he can make Sally Collier consider her position, well, I think we could all live with that.

Written byMelanie McDonagh

Melanie McDonagh is a contributor to The Spectator.

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