The exam board should be giving children more, not less, choice
When I started teaching in 1988, I was too junior to be allowed to make photocopies. There was a banda machine in the staff room for making sticky purple carbon copies instead, and the kids would hold them to their noses to joyously inhale the alcoholic smell. GCSEs and the National Curriculum were both brand new, and departmental planning was by the book: that is, we sat in the stock cupboard every half term and decided who was going to do what class set next.
The books though, were far more diverse than they are today, especially the poetry. In the pre-national curriculum years, schools could pick their own poems and nearly 7,000 were studied across the country in competing anthologies. The Swann Report of 1987 had enforced the importance of diverse literature which positively reflected the backgrounds of black and Asian students, but my school, which was in North London and very multicultural, needed no urging.
From Kamau Braithwaite’s Limbo to Evan Jones’s Song of the Banana Man, we danced and sang along with these texts as well as wrote about them. But these days, dancing is out and so is much the of Caribbean poetry we loved. Students approaching GCSE this year will have had studied a selection of only 170 poems, and their diversity is much poorer than it was, no longer reflecting the rich background of the young people studying them.
This week, it was announced that one of the exam boards is tackling this by adding poems by Raymond Antrobus and Ilya Kaminsky but making room by removing Wilfred Owen and Philip Larkin. Already, Education Secretary Nadim Zahawi has waded in to describe this decision as “cultural vandalism”.
Young people, in my classroom experience, adore Antrobus and Kaminsky’s work: they show them their own lives with the clarity of great poets. But they love Larkin and Owen, too: both of them particularly filmic poets, leaving images in the mind of the past, of blinds being drawn down and ambulances running through a town which will endure for decades. We need them all, not either/or.
So how did we travel from the stock cupboard to the world where there are a million poems freely available on the internet but only a 170 that may be studied? Past Government reforms have certainly not helped, but the slashing of the primary curriculum also did damage, as did the obsession with grammar in the Year 6 SAT. The ever-increasing pressure on the first three years of secondary school, and the common pattern of pupils starting the GCSE curriculum then also cut into free and exploratory reading. Underlying it all is an English Curriculum which has become ever more anxiously focused on functional skills, ‘knowledge’ and critical analysis. For poems, this often means the naming of literary devices to an obsessive degree — one that cuts joy from the subject at A-Level.
Zahawi may or may not succeed in getting the Owen/Antrobus swap reversed, but either way he would do better to relax the curriculum and leave the choices to teachers. We want to teach both: classic poems and contemporary ones. We just need more time, less pressure, and a stock cupboard.