‘A dangerous first step’: Simon Armitage among poets to blast GCSE decision | Books


Poet laureate Simon Armitage and former children’s laureate Michael Rosen are among the top UK poets decrying the government’s decision to make poetry optional for GCSE students next year, describing it as “a dangerous first step”.

Ofqual announced on Tuesday that, due to the impact of coronavirus on education, it would allow exam boards to change their assessment criteria for GCSE English literature next summer. While students will still be assessed on a Shakespeare play, they will only have to focus on two out of the three remaining areas – poetry, the 19th-century novel, and fiction or drama from the British Isles after 1914.

Armitage, whose work has been part of the GCSE syllabus for the last two decades, said the decision was sad.

“This is a time when poetry seems to be really having its moment, because of the comfort, consolation and form of expression that people have found in poetry over these months. Among younger people, it seems a very vibrant, popular art form,” said Armitage. “It’s a worry that making it optional might have a knock-on effect and just make it one of those add-ons that it’s been at times in the past.”

“Poetry is language at play, and a lot of the time in a school or classroom environment, students are expected to use language in a very rational, logical and informational way. To be denied the opportunity to think of language as nuanced and playful is a pity,” he added.

Rosen called the decision wrong.

‘Poetry is needed now more than ever’ … Imtiaz Dharker. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian

“By making it voluntary they are in effect ensuring that a percentage of students at English schools will not do any poetry in years 10 and 11,” Rosen wrote on Facebook. He recently returned home after being treated in intensive care for Covid-19. “Poetry offers a view on humanity, society and the world that is playful, contemplative, mysterious, questioning, and one that is often interested in giving readers the chance to hold several different ideas in our heads at the same time.”

Poet Imtiaz Dharker agreed. “People have reached for poetry like a lifeline in this pandemic. That’s why it is a pity to treat it as expendable, even for a year. Especially this year,” she said.

She acknowledged the challenges students and teachers are facing, but said she hoped they would still opt for poetry. “Poetry is where language opens its heart and lets everyone in. That’s the poetry so many young people have been responding to, and that great teachers will persist in teaching even if it is unruly. It is needed now more than ever,” she said.

Armitage took issue with Ofqual’s assertion that many of the respondents to its consultation “highlighted the difficulties for students in trying to get to grips with complex literary texts remotely”.

“Yet Shakespeare’s in there?” he said. “There’s a huge variety of complexity within the work that’s presented at GCSE level, so I don’t think you should underestimate students’ capacity or even their ambitions for taking on language.”

Poet Andrew McMillan called it “a dangerous first step” and called for “much more tailored choice” in the poetry studied around the UK.

“Yes, it’s important that kids read a wide range of poetry that allows them to access different worlds but they need to know too that their street, their village, their town, is worthy of great poetry. Why aren’t they studying Geoff Hattersley in Barnsley schools or Liz Berry at every school in the Black Country or Caleb Femi in every London school?” he said. “Poetry still occupies an important place in society. We use it for weddings and funerals. We still think of it as high art. To let children know that their own lives are worthy of poetry is really vital.”

The Forward Arts Foundation, the organiser of National Poetry Day, said that schools’ and libraries’ participation in the celebrations on 1 October are set to double this year, and reported a 160% increase in users on their website during lockdown.

“People who don’t see themselves as ‘literary’ clearly love sharing poems: they’ve done it throughout lockdown, on their phones and laptops, as a way of keeping in touch. Nothing Ofqual decrees can reverse that sense of shared delight,” said Forward’s executive director, Susannah Herbert.

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