'What would Shakespeare have made of primary English in 2016? He would have been disappointed'

27th April 2016 at 16:14
Shakespeare and primary English
Imagining what the great playwright would have thought about how we teach English in the 21st century is a rather depressing exercise, writes one celebrated headteacher

With the anniversary of Shakespeare's death being marked across the country, what better time to engage in a flight of fancy about the Bard? So let’s imagine what he would have made of the state of primary English in 2016.

I feel certain that the lack of creativity would have concerned him, as would the assessment, and the drive to teach grammar at the expense of the love of writing.

I am sure his eyebrows would have flickered upwards as he was made aware of the government’s incessant need to clone our children’s literacy skills at the expense of true expression. Similarly, he wouldn’t have been overly keen about the prospect of thousands of children sitting the key stage 2 grammar paper in a couple of weeks’ time either.

Surely, Shakey would, like primary heads around the country, have been horrified at the lack of meaningful conversation in our classrooms because children face countless hours in front of the television or playing meaningless games on their tablets. This is at the expense of meaningful conversation with their parents which is essential for their development of communication skills.

I would have been the first to point out to the great wordsmith that far too many kids joining primary school lack the ability to express themselves, show feelings and make their individual needs known. And what then happens to them? They are immediately placed on the education treadmill, ill prepared for what is expected of them.

Shakespeare would– I am in no doubt – have understood the strong link between speech, language and communication skills and a child's cognitive, social and emotional wellbeing.

Stage fright

No doubt he would have been horrified that in the 21st century teachers still consistently witness a large proportion of children unable to speak, or understand the spoken word.

I would have done my best to explain to my new mate Will that the solution is an early years curriculum focused on the spoken language. I suspect that, as the world’s greatest ever dramatist, he would have agreed with me that teachers need to talk to the children more and, of course, listen more when they reply.

As a school we appointed our own speech therapist, a move that he would understand immediately as a good one. She supports the child, and trains the teachers and works with parents. We have done this because we know it is the only way the child will make the progress they deserve. We also celebrate talk in the same way as reading and writing. Now I'm sure Shakespeare would have fully approved of that – and been disappointed that so few schools feel they are able to follow suit.

This giant of drama would have understood that the spoken word influences our pupil’s learning, memory, enjoyment, understanding, motivation to learn, and undoubtedly improves self-worth.

He would have told us to resist the constant push to hasten our children's learning when they are just not ready for it and to stand firm – like Henry V on St Crispin’s Day – against the government’s drive towards achievement in reading and writing at the expense of everything else.

Colin Harris is headteacher of Warren Park Primary School in Havant, Hampshire 

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