This Perversity

Over the last few days there have been continuing defences of the GCSE study of poetry in schools for the enlightenment it brings to readers, to name just one of many potent personal and educational benefits.

This has come from poets and writers in general and educationalists and newspaper editorials and I agree with each and every articulation of why poetry is important in general terms and in its sharing/teaching in schools.

This has also come quite specifically as a national assertion on the back of Ofqual making the study and examination of poetry for GCSE English Literature an option for 2021. And this has put me in the utterly perverse situation of agreeing with the widespread sentiments being expressed about the purpose of poetry, and then disagreeing with the context in which this is being so suddenly popular to express.

Perhaps the advocates I advocate, but don’t, have a grip on grabbing the argument now – when it is strictly speaking erroneous – so that it can be continued and built on in the future.

I doubt this. The other uncomfortable perversity is that my stance makes me appear to be agreeing with Ofqual, which I’m not, but I am.

Ofqual in responding to a consultation on GCSE study/examination for 2021 [post-covid, one hopes…] responded by making the decision for English Literature to have three previously compulsory components reduced to two: the option to ‘drop’ any one of the three given.

OK, Ofqual never usually respond meaningfully to consultation and argument, so this makes it all sound suspect. And they could have responded so much more intelligently and educationally, but they didn’t. They made a pragmatic decision, and teachers will do the same.

Now, a few examples just for the sake of exploring. If I was teaching still, I wouldn’t drop teaching poetry and preparing students for examination [this in itself a pragmatic rather than inspiring link, but there you go] because I love poetry, loved teaching it, and believe in its importance and the students’ ability and desire for reading and studying poetry.

But that’s me.

I would also, personally, prefer teaching the poetry to the 19th century novel choices because of the context and expectations defined around the study and examination of those.

But I would understand many colleagues and departments choosing to for purely functional, pragmatic reasons because of, for example, the fact they have already taught the 19th century novel in year 10 [!], the department is more effective/resourced in teaching this, and/or the staffing – maybe few subject-specialist teachers [scandalous but another consequence of abysmal pragmatic decision-making] – dictates this.

As for 20th century drama: well, as ever, the great majority will teach The Inspector Calls because every school has a few tons of resources to do so! This will apply to other drama choices, based on previous experience and again existing resources. It is definitely popular and students do well in responding.

On a quick personal note, as an examiner, I now know The Inspector Calls better than would ever have been possible by teaching it, which I didn’t! All those thousands and thousands of exam responses marked. And I have written on this before: it is always quite overwhelming to read student after student understanding fully the social injustices conveyed through that text, and their genuine abhorrence at it. That said, and on the basis this text has been on syllabuses since before it was written, for all those students from at least 2 years ago and many more before who despised those inequalities exposed in that studied text but who voted for the Tories in the most recent election, this does call into question the longevity of their having an empathy.

I’m sure this so far could seem like the lone voice trying to justify itself under the weight of all those well-known and illustrious voices arguing otherwise. And I know I can be defensive. But I honestly feel compelled to state because I am so frustrated with the perverse situation all of this has put me in, and the fact all of this outpouring of support for poetry should and could have come at other more productive times, especially during the Cummings/Gove consultation on the content and shape of GCSE English Literature for its 2015 start.

But it didn’t.

I do, however, hope that when the driving force for this current situation – coronavirus – is gone, we can galvanise these voices for a rethink of the curriculum as it is. We need to, obviously, address diversity in the texts we teach across all genres. Again, there have been voices quite rightly challenging this, especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter awareness, but this was directed at Examining Boards/Awarding Bodies. Although these can make some choices on texts that represent diversity, and have made some over the years, these are subject to Ofqual/Government approval and, as with American authors, such representative texts are banned from examination for GCSE English Literature. The point is, it’s about who you vote for and where you challenge whatever aspect of educational content, control and provision you target for change.

I think people need to be more clever, and pertinent, in the battles they take on. We know this current government blatantly ignore anything with which it disagrees, but there needs to be a principle to the challenge. Yes? Perhaps, as I said earlier, others know different and think getting an argument in now is better than nothing.

I’m surprised Ofqual hasn’t made so much more of smugly responding to the ‘don’t drop poetry’ mantra by simply saying ‘we haven’t’. You’d think The Empty Space That is Nick Gibb would be all over this as probably the only one education reality he understands.

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