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The impact of a poetry-free GCSE

The exams regulator Ofqual has announced that schools will be allowed to drop one of the components of GCSE English Literature after the coronavirus pandemic took away a term’s worth of teaching time. Shakespeare remains compulsory, but schools can choose to drop any of the remaining options – the nineteenth century novel, the modern text (either a novel or play) or poetry. 

On the surface, this appears to be a sensible decision. GCSEs, especially the new ones with the 9-1 grading systems, are tough enough as they are even without a pandemic interfering. Both teachers and students, having already been through enough, can do without the extra stress and pressure of teaching or learning content in an insufficient period of time. 

The problem comes when we stop, think and realise that many fifteen year old students could go through their GCSE without encountering a single poem. Various poets have openly condemned the decision, including Michael Rosen, Imtiaz Dharker and Simon Armitage (the latter two of whom have poems on the GCSE syllabus). Armitage has even gone as far to call the decision ‘a dangerous move’ that sends out a message that poetry is unnecessary and expendable. 

Poetry is experiencing a new lease of life, growing, and evolving into new forms, such as Instagram poetry

‘Dangerous’ is a strong word, at worst an apt one – at the very least, it is certainly a great shame for young people to go without poetry in the classroom. They would, firstly, miss out on a well rounded study of literature. They shouldn’t only know the difference between simile and metaphor, but that literature isn’t just a subject of old dense books written by centuries-dead posh white men. It is rich, varied and comes in multiple kinds of packages: novels, plays, poems. Literature doesn’t have to come in the form of a thick tome; it can appear as a brief moment on a singular page, where just a few sentences can say as much as a volume of War and Peace. 

Critics have also described the decision as out of touch, given that young people engage with poetry far more than we might expect. A survey by the Children’s Literacy Trust in 2018 revealed that 46.1% of young people engage with poetry in some form, whether it be reading it, writing it or sharing it on social media. This is something I can vouch for myself: in secondary school and sixth form I would watch performance poets with my best friend and read collections from Sabrina Benaim and Rupi Kaur. Armitage also notes that this has increased over the lockdown period. Interestingly, engagement is especially high among economically deprived young people. Poetry is experiencing a new lease of life, growing, and evolving into new forms, such as Instagram poetry. It seems only natural, in a way, given that it suits the modern world’s demands for immediacy in a time where attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. 

Altogether, young people could bring a lot from their lockdown lives to their studies of poetry in September

Likewise, what would happen to the young people considering studying English at A-Level or beyond? Without a study of poetry, they could walk into their A-Level studies with their skills of analysing poetry rusty, unused for a year or longer. They will be sitting their exams hopefully in a post-pandemic world where examiners may treat them exactly as they treated every pre-pandemic candidate. There have been plenty of reports of how disadvantaged children and young people will be even having missed a term of their education, and this is just one way such disadvantages could manifest themselves. 

Altogether, young people could bring a lot from their lockdown lives to their studies of poetry in September. Equally, poetry can bring a lot to them: new perspectives, a sense of the beauty of language, even a new love affair with a writer. The GCSE curriculum ignited a friend’s love for Simon Armitage. They might find a voice to relate to, as my fourteen year old self in the height of a misanthropy/emo phase did with William Blake. Now, they may go without that. 

Here’s a better idea. It might not be feasible for every school depending on what they have already taught, but how about Ofqual recommend a proper balance in the curriculum? One play, one novel, one collection of poetry – the best of all three worlds. That way, not even a pandemic can interfere with the best way you can teach literature – introducing students to all its wonderful, varied forms. 

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