by Kate Clanchy
Friday, 24
June 2022
Analysis
14:30

Philip Larkin belongs in the syllabus

The exam board should be giving children more, not less, choice
by Kate Clanchy

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.

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Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 month ago

Philip Larkin wrote a great deal of his verse in iambic pentameter, which examiners won’t understand because they’re not educated.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 month ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Then they are going to struggle with Shakespeare as much.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
1 month ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

True… And whilst I recognise that one cannot miss what one did not know – never to have read “Aubade” or “The Whitsun Weddings” would be a depressing thought.

Growing up in Hull, my friend and I worked on our embarrassing juvenilia at his home home in the Avenues, whilst (unknown to us) Larkin eked out his final years in the next street over. Not long after, we found out for ourselves what he’d created and life really was never quite the same for either of us.

To deny the next generation such discoveries is criminal.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 month ago
Reply to  Richard Parker

Listening to Larkin reading his own poems is quite instructive (particularly ones with ‘ambiguous’ last lines, like ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ or ‘An Arundel Tomb’). His stresses often were notable, and were not ones I highlighted when reading. Also his pronunciation of the word ‘cushions’ made me sit up straight for some reason.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
1 month ago
Reply to  Arnold Grutt

Thanks for the recommendation: I’ll have to follow up on that. It’s often instructive to hear a poet read their own work, isn’t it? I look forward to listening.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 month ago
Reply to  Richard Parker

Of course Larkin belongs on the syllabus. That’s why he isn’t on it.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
1 month ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

I am therefore very glad that he was on my O Level syllabus. Stayed with me all my life, unlike many other things I learned. Still dip into High Windows and Whitsun Weddings before retiring of an evening.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago

The unintended consequences of publishing league tables for schools. Whilst they were originally intended to show which schools were performing well or failing (despite being a blunt instrument not taking into consideration the affluence and resources of the area they sit), they instead led to schools teaching a very narrow curriculum of what is likely to appear in the exams rather than offering a broad education. Kids are now taught to pass the test rather than to gain skills and knowledge

Last edited 1 month ago by Billy Bob
Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 month ago

Far more important than school teaching is the ready availiability of public libraries which do not restrict content on political grounds. I was born during the heyday of good public libraries (which were then not refuges for the child-carers for working mothers and their noisy charges) and made regular use of them, and this in an era when book selection was wide-ranging over all disciplines. They provided a springboard for my further researches into writers of all types and cultural backgrounds, in a variety of chosen subjects (languages, music, poetry, philosophy, ornithology and so on).
Unfortunately the Politburo got control at some stage and they started to disappear.

Last edited 1 month ago by Arnold Grutt
Arkadian X
Arkadian X
1 month ago

Clancy decries the either/or situation about poetry selection, but for her grammar should be out because there is an “obsession” at SAT level? Must we have an either/or approach here too?

Last edited 1 month ago by Andrea X
Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
1 month ago

While I believe that Literature is a vital subject for young people to study, I don’t believe that it should involve a national examination.

Most people will, hopefully, be given a joy in reading by schools. There’s nothing to examine.

It may be so, that some want to study further, fair enough, test them, not everyone.

The tests drive the syllabus. It’s easier to systematically examine a small number of poems.

Stephen Magee
Stephen Magee
1 month ago

We need less – not more – poetry in schools. That way, we might eventually get fewer “poets” in society as a whole. Only then might we be liberated from the drivel that passes for poetry these days.

Mark M Breza
Mark M Breza
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen Magee

Oh you don’t like the dirt king Charles Bukowski ?

Stephen Magee
Stephen Magee
1 month ago

“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”
This garbled piece of writing is Exhibit A in the case against Ms Clanchy.

Mark M Breza
Mark M Breza
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen Magee

Use your other side of the brain. There is more than logical understanding.