In light of the coronavirus pandemic, Ofqual, the exams authority, has announced that GCSE students will be able to drop subject areas in English literature and history exams next year. As an English and French student at university, you can understand why this might concern and upset me, without any prior explanation. I’m feeling like I need to rant about this though, and offer an ardent defence of poetry, so brace yourselves.
I have always taken issue with the fact that we use standardised tests to measure the intelligence of our community – painting every individual with the same brush. Some people struggle to express themselves on paper – rather, it’s easier for them to speak their mind. Others still might have an extensive knowledge of the Tudors or Industrial Britain – but they can’t master the exam technique the board is asking of them. Why judge everyone in the same way, and leave some at a disadvantage?
Not learning about poetry takes an integral part of our language and culture away from young people
One might argue that Ofqual’s decision allows for a certain flexibility that takes a step away from standardised testing – but this isn’t the case. This is a change that has only come about due to extraordinary circumstances, rather than an actual change that Ofqual has chosen to undertake. If it wasn’t for coronavirus, it is likely that everything would have stayed the same.
Second of all, it takes away from a learning experience – poetry. I must admit, I hated poetry before I got to university, but that was only because we had no actual understanding of it, due to the fact that we were never really taught about it. Sure, we knew how to recognise sonnets and metre, but we never understood it. And that means you can’t fully appreciate poetry, an art form that predates written text. Essentially, not learning about poetry takes an integral part of our language and culture – not just as Britons, but as human beings – even further away from young people.
For those who are praising the flexibility this seems to offer, think it through. Sure, kids might not be able to learn and engage with all the content they need to due to coronavirus, but there are other concessions that can be made, rather than taking away a key part of (English) literature and leaving our young people completely in the dark about an element of culture and history that has been there since the very beginning.
I never thought the standard of education would drop in my lifetime. As the guinea pig year which trialled the new GCSEs and A levels, I thought the standard would continue to grow as we moved forward with the evolution of public exams.
As it happened, my year at school marks the end of a rounded education. This year GCSE students and A level students have not had to sit exams, which has confused me slightly considering many first years at different universities had to sit exams, which did not contribute to their overall grade. Now, poetry is being made optional in English Literature and you no longer have to do the oral assessment in English Language.
English teaches you that you are allowed to have your own opinion and form your own judgement, so long as you have the evidence to back it up
I am passionate about English and never considered it a soft subject, and to consider it one would be naïve. The skills it gives you and the knowledge it allows you to gain is truly amazing. The moments I cursed Shakespeare for ever writing Othello were also the moments I began to appreciate literature, culture, and history. I have always loved learning English and, though some of the syllabus is challenging, it’s rewarding. I remember the nail-biting moment when you open your exam paper and pray to see the poem you’ve spent so long annotating and getting to know. I remember how rewarding it was to stand up in front of my class and discuss a topic I felt very passionately about. English teaches you that you are allowed to have your own opinion and form your own judgement, so long as you have the evidence to back it up.
In a system where its very difficult to learn soft skills and learn how to formulate arguments it seems counter productive to take away such an important part of English. The skills we learn whilst we’re being forced to annotate a poem are skills we use every day. English teaches you that creativity is important. Exams are excruciating and often simplify knowledge. English allows students to use their own creativity – it allows them to escape the typical black and white answers and create their own shade.