Why is everybody talking about Billy? Why poetry became an optional choice at GCSE (and Shakespeare didn’t)

By Lucy Johnson

Remember traipsing through the poetry anthology during you GCSE’s? The tables have turned for high school students as poetry has become an optional choice on the GCSE curriculum for the coming year.

Students that were due to take exams this year are yet another group hard hit by the pandemic; losing many hours of valuable teaching time may put them at a serious disadvantage. But, Ofqual, regulators of qualifications, examinations and assessments in the UK found a solution that has left many unhappy at the message it sends to students, and worried that it sets a dangerous precedent for the future.

Ofqual’s decision

For the upcoming academic year, Ofqual has announced that all students of English Literature GCSE will have to sit the Shakespeare component of their exams, but that one of the other three areas – the nineteenth century novel, post-1914 British fiction and drama, and poetry – may be dropped, as it is hard for students “to get to grips with complex literary texts remotely.”

It must be noted that these changes only apply to 2021 exams and are not a permanent change – yet. But the decision has provoked outcry from the UK’s top poets and poetry associations, who see it as a dangerous step towards the loss of poetry altogether.

Other subjects, allowed to continue as normal

It must be pointed out, for instance, that English is one of a couple of subjects to have any changes made at all. The Guardian writes that:

“The content of double science – the popular three-in-one science GCSE – is presumably also, as Ofqual says of poetry, difficult to deliver online, but Ofqual isn’t telling teachers they can pick between chemistry and biology next year providing they stick with the physics.”

History and Ancient History will also offer a choice of topics, and the speaking components of Modern Foreign languages have been cut, according to the BBC and The Guardian. Maths and sciences, however, remain untouched.

An argument could be made that sciences couldn’t be changed. To miss out sections would put a candidate at a significant disadvantage at A Level and beyond, having not covered the basics. I counter with – it’s the same with poetry.

I took English Literature all the way from GCSE and am now entering my final year of studying it at university. A student who had not been taught the basics of analysing poems at GCSE would be at a huge disadvantage come A-Level if they were trying to learn those concepts whilst simultaneously trying to get to grips with the context and language of texts such as Paradise Lost or The Wasteland. Not having a good grounding in analysing poetry would also put them at a disadvantage if they chose to pursue English Literature at University. So why is English deemed so much harder, and so much less necessary?

Why Poetry is Good for Young People, Especially Right Now

“People have reached for poetry like a lifeline in this pandemic. That’s why it’s a pity to treat it as expendable, even for a year. Especially this year,”- Imitaz Dharker

Simon Armitage agrees that poetry “seems to be really having its moment” in the current climate, as people young and old use it to get to grips with the emotional consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.

Social media has also allowed poetry to thrive, with poems being shared on TikTok and Instagram – “Instagram poetry” is a relatively new, though sometimes criticised, form made popular by Rupi Kaur’s ‘milk & honey’. Kaur uses Instagram posts and stories to share her work and engage with her audience, and short, simple poems in a similar style can be found all over the social media platform.

Why poetry is still important

Young people are clearly already engaging with poetry outside the classroom – and there are still more reasons to make it widely available inside as well:

EMOTION

Poetry carries emotion better than prose; this is clearly evidenced by the increasing popularity of poetry in a moment of emotional upheaval. It allows students to express themselves and their emotions more freely and sincerely than they can in prose when writing themselves, or to engage more closely with writers when they are able to connect with them on an emotional level.

CREATIVITY

Poetry provides a creative outlet for students. Young people are not just sharing poetry – they are writing it themselves. Simon Armitage says that “poetry is language at play” and that “to be denied the opportunity to think of language as nuanced and playful is a pity.” Poetry allows people to really have fun with language in a way that is harder with prose and impossible with the academic writing demanded from students in their other subjects.

DIVERSITY

Diversity. Poetry is the main part of the current GCSE curriculum that involves a really diverse range of writers, in terms both of ethnicity and time period. English Literature can often be seen as the stuffy, archaic domain of old white men, so bringing contemporary, diverse voices can really promote student’s involvement and connection with the texts they study. They can connect and identify with someone who is more like them in a literary context, often for the first time. To make this section optional whilst retaining Shakespeare reduces English back down to that initial assumption of stuffiness.

Young people have been unfairly underestimated when Ofqual claims that it is hard for them “to get to grips with complex literary texts remotely” – and if that really is the reason, why has the most complex text been left as compulsory?

Why Shakespeare?

In my controversial opinion, Shakespeare is over-studied and unfairly promoted against a wide range of literary voices that remain silenced in his shadow.

The obsession with Shakespeare does nothing to promote diversity and makes English Literature unappealing and overly difficult to new students. It is by far the most complex text studied at GCSE. So why is it still compulsory?

Yes, Shakespeare was a great playwright and a huge influence on the English language, inventing several hundred new words and phrases. Yes, he wrote a lot of plays and poetry. And yes, once you get to grips with the language, his plays are enjoyable. But that doesn’t mean he is not over-taught.

I studied Shakespeare in Year 9 (Romeo and Juliet), I studied Shakespeare at GCSE (Richard II), I studied Shakespeare at A Level (Measure for Measure), and I have only avoided studying Shakespeare at University by going abroad for a semester. All this time, I have been studying Shakespeare when there are so many other writers that I could have been studying as well.

For instance, there are Shakespeare’s contemporaries, such as Johnson, Webster, and Marlowe. They were just as popular in their time and were also influential playwrights, but most GCSE students probably won’t have heard of them.

Furthermore, students could be studying more diverse writers that are more accessible – Shakespeare is incredibly hard to get to grips with, as his jokes make no sense anymore, his language is archaic (being 400 years old), and the shifts in tone and meter are hard to adjust to. To analyse Shakespeare, you have to learn huge swathes of historical context in order to understand the jokes, references, and contemporary allusions that he makes.

It makes no sense to me that this must remain compulsory whilst potentially cutting poetry, sacrificing a range of writers for the voice of just one. The most exciting, accessible component of Literature is being potentially sacrificed for the most difficult and off-putting.

Other Ways to Help Students

Instead of cutting poetry, or making it optional for the year, there are other ways that Ofqual could have helped students for the coming year. As writer and teacher Kate Clanchy suggests on Twitter, open book exams could relieve pressure on students to learn quotations and instead allow them the time to engage with texts.

Or Shakespeare could have been made optional, as the most challenging component of the GCSE (in my opinion), whilst maintaining the poetry choice.

Potentially denying students the basic skills in analysing poetry that they will need to further their studies of literature, whilst simultaneously removing the most relatable, diverse writers and promoting archaic texts will not help students in the long run, and will not promote English literature as an exciting avenue of study. It will do the opposite. Ofqual is doing writers, students, and the English language a great disservice – and to be perfectly honest, I am quite sick of talking about old Billy.

Graphic courtesy of Isabel Armitage

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