Pay attention, there’ll be a test!

For too many of the 600,000 students who sit that GCSE, it’s their final taste of Shakespeare …

BH KS4 Shakespeare exam boardsShakespeare is the only author that everyone over here has to study.  Unless, it appears, you live in Scotland (and someone might be able to correct me on that if I have misread the SQA specification) …

‘For divers unknown reasons‘ as Richard III would say, I’ve been engaged in a little research of what our exam boards offer at Key Stage 4 – that is for the 15/16 year-olds who sit their GCSE English Literature.  I think it throws up some interesting points:

1 – most obviously, it’s only in England that the ‘dreaded’ [dreaded by who?  A conversation for another time] coursework has entirely disappeared.  There are actually a number of schools in England who follow the WJEC specification, and I wonder how much of a factor this is in their decision;

2 – non-teachers might be taken aback at the absence of some obvious big-hitters.  God knows that the boards don’t always get it right, but here I think they are correct to omit Hamlet and King Lear – the former might be left out because it is just too suicidal for young minds (ahem, as opposed to R and J), but it is too big, too complex, so much more than The Lion King … and as to Lear, I simply don’t think you can really understand it without a certain amount of life experience;

3 – if there are surprising omissions, I think they are mostly in the History plays.  I’m staggered that no-one offers Henry V, considering the significance of the victory at Agincourt by the ‘band of brothers‘.  Not least at the moment, with England’s progress in the World Cup.  It’s not a difficult play, and some basic background on Falstaff would solve any backstory issues.  Boards could offer it with the specific caveat that the scene delivered in French wouldn’t be examined.  A second thought is that Richard II is overlooked.  The plot is no more difficult than the ones offered (especially Merchant, and Twelfth Night, I’d suggest), and the language no more obscure than, say, R and J (betraying some bias here);

4 – there isn’t enough love for Julius Caesar, or Othello.  Is the first too political, and the second too potentially uncomfortable?  Othello can’t be much more sensitive than Merchant, or The Tempest – whilst teaching that I have heard students state quite loudly that Miranda is absolutely correct to reject Caliban because he is black; and

5 – overall, the variety on offer isn’t great.  And for too many of the 600,000 or so students, it’ll be their final taste of Shakespeare – a tragedy indeed.

How might I improve things?

Firstly, my choice of texts would comprise, in no particular order:

  • Richard III*
  • Macbeth
  • The Tempest
  • Julius Caesar
  • Richard II
  • Henry V
  • Othello
  • Romeo and Juliet (I guess)
  • As You Like It
  • Twelfth Night

* obviously, you will say if you know me.  But if I can reasonably successfully teach it at Y9 every year, then it will work fine for older students.

Next, if I ruled the world, students would study two texts – probably from the same genre.  They’d have an extract question to allow them to demonstrate their language analysis skills, and a second which asked them to compare how a theme was treated by Shakespeare in two plays – eg, parents and children, disguise, power and ambition.  This, would be tricky, sure, and time consuming, but an ulterior motive is getting students to think more carefully about the wider themes, and to come out of school with a bit more cultural capital under their belts, and a potential greater appreciation of Shakespeare.

Finally, I would – of course I would – have a bank of dedicated / accredited Shakespeare teachers, who could teach the plays to all the KS4 students in their schools, with some timetable changes.  It makes no sense – and here I am going to generalise massively – to relegate teaching Shakespeare to someone who might well have an English Lit degree but has no interest in the one compulsary author in the qualification … I’ve seen too many of them pick R and J (damn, there I go again), because they think the Lurhman version is ‘relatable’ for the kids …

Two questions for you:

  • if you teach overseas, as most of my visitors do, I’d LOVE to hear what arrangements for teaching Shakespeare look like; and
  • if you’re a UK educator or student, I’d like your constructive views on the current situation and how it might be improved

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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