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Baffled by the Bard

Many pupils are simply bewildered by their statutory Shakespeare studies, says Chris Firth

Much as I admire the awesome Bard, I cannot shake off the opinion that setting a statutory national exam on selected scenes of Shakespeare's plays at key stage 3 was always educationally misguided.

When the notion was steamrollered in by a Conservative government it was strongly opposed by teachers and the National Association of Teachers of English (NATE). Several years later most teachers find it irksome that the Shakespeare test continues under this "education, education, education" government. Imagine the outcry if the QCA suddenly decreed that a random word-for-word portion of Newton's Principia Mathematica had to be studied for the maths SATs, or Einstein's Theory of Relativity was to be tested for A-level in science.

English teachers have put up with the situation with little official opposition, though we complain about it in the staffroom or to other teachers on the equally obligatory "Raising Boys' Achievement" courses.

NATE is opposed to the Shakespeare test, but is surprisingly unvocal about it, at least in the media. Along with every English teacher and head of English I have spoken to, Anne Barnes, KS3 spokesperson for NATE, agrees that studying Shakespeare is fine in principle, but that to be officially tested on a "clip" of a full text does neither Shakespeare nor pupls justice.

I marked SATs papers for three years and know that the entire KS3 English SATs results are flawed, with scores thrown askew by the Shakespeare paper, especially for pupils whose first language is not English and lower-achieving pupils.

In effect, pupils sit what amounts to a history exam. They are not, to all practical purposes, answering questions on their own language, but are being tested on their understanding of a kind of historical Creole that has little relevance to their lives, or their understanding of language and reading. It really is heart-wrenching to see pupils who are struggling at level 4 open the Shakespeare paper and sit there baffled. And that just from the wording of the question, let alone getting to grips with structuring a real response to the "gobbledygook" of the text.

The QCA remains unavailable for comment on this problem, or on the future of the statutory Shakespeare Paper. For another year at least then, English teachers and pupils are lumbered with a test-focused study for which they have little real love. Ah well, lay on, Macduff; once more unto the breach; light the way to dusty death...

Chris Firth is a writer and English teacher. His KS3 educational reader Hocus Pocus Hullabaloo is published by Solomon Press. Last year he was awarded a British Arts Council Writers Award for a collection of short stories for teenagers

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