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Parting not such sweet sorrow

Shakespeare exam that needed no knowledge of playwright is scrapped by the QCA. Philippa White reports

Teachers have welcomed the decision to scrap a controversial Shakespeare writing test that required no knowledge of the Bard's work.

However, some are concerned that England's greatest playwright is being "downgraded" because the new Shakespeare paper will be worth 18 instead of 38 marks in the key stage 3 English assessment from 2005.

But others say the Shakespeare test should be cut altogether and replaced with a coursework assessment that would help pupils appreciate his work.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority announced last week that the writing test on the KS3 Shakespeare paper will be replaced by a test on the general writing paper unconnected to his works. This means marks allocated to the Shakespeare paper will drop from 38 to 18 of the 100 available in the total KS3 English test.

Last year's writing test caused outrage when teachers complained that students needed no knowledge of Shakespeare to sit it. Students studying Macbeth, for example, had to write a light-hearted piece for a book about villains. Until 2002, the writing test on the paper had required direct knowledge of a Shakespeare play.

Bethan Marshall, lecturer in education at King's College, London, said:

"Shakespeare has been quite clearly downgraded, but it was a fear of looking as if this was happening that made QCA come up with this curious hybrid writing test last year. What they have announced now is what they originally wanted but didn't dare do."

Andrew Howard, head of English at Newport Free grammar, Essex, said: "This stops the very tenuous and rather tokenistic appearance of that writing task on the Shakespeare paper, so it's an improvement.

"But I'd rather the paper wasn't there at all. The way in which you study Shakespeare for the Sats can be incredibly reductive."

Gareth Carey, KS3 English co-ordinator at Barking Abbey school, Barking and Dagenham, said: "We were over-exaggerating the importance of Shakespeare.

Maybe now we will all relax a bit - I'm sure he would have liked that."

Simon Wrigley, vice-chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said the whole system of testing Shakespeare through a timed test detracted from his work.

"Shakespeare's works would be more respected, and children would stand more chance of loving him and realising how his works are relevant to their lives, if Shakespeare was assessed through coursework," he said.

A spokesman for the QCA denied that Shakespeare had been downgraded. "Up until 2002 only 22 of the 38 marks on the Shakespeare paper were related to understanding of and response to his works - the other 16 were for written expression.

"So a drop from 22 marks in 2002 to 18 marks from 2005 is not really that dramatic. Shakespeare is still an absolutely central part of the assessment."

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