All's well that ends eventually

31st May 1996 at 01:00
The sheer number of Shakespeare lessons occupying secondary timetables these days is beginning to depress me. This was not just in April and May with Year 9 whose teachers were getting them ready for the SATS. Year 8 have to be prepared for Year 9; Year 10 have to be prepared for Year 11.

Anyone who remembers "doing" Shakespeare, will also remember that it takes quite a long time to get into a play, to get the story straight, know the characters, understand some of the themes - let alone get to grips with the language and learn some quotations.

As a PGCE English tutor, I observe scores of lessons every year. By and large, these are chosen at random - according to my availability and the students' timetables. Would anyone be surprised to know that well over half of these, maybe as many as two thirds, are now Shakespeare lessons?

As an English teacher, I enjoyed teaching Shakespeare; not because he's Shakespeare (the cultural icon), but because he's good. Most English teachers know that teaching Shakespeare can be pleasurable and if you get it right, the students like it and learn a lot too. My PGCE students seem to feel the same. So it's not the Shakespeare lessons per se that are my problem.

Making Shakespeare compulsory, the subject of tests and exams at both KS3 and KS4, has meant that he is now occupying an inordinate amount of time. He is pushing out on to the margins not only other books which might actually give more children a genuine taste for reading, but also a great many of those other English activities which teachers would like to do and which the national curriculum requires them to cover.

The agenda for English teachers - even post-Dearing - is still long. Confidence-building in reading, writing, speaking and listening, standard English, grammar, knowledge about language, varieties of writing, genres, drama, media texts, IT, pre-20th century literature, and so on - all these things take time. Teachers could, teachers do, hang all or a lot of these things on to their work with Shakespeare. Writing schemes of work these days is an art, demanding great teacher-ingenuity, to cover as much of the NC as possible, at any given time.

But what a shame it all is. I can't help thinking that when he wrote about his schoolboys creeping unwillingly to school, Shakespeare little thought that it might be his own plays they would be being force-fed. Sorry, Will, not "your plays" - just the five or six "set" ones. Over and over and over again.

Pauline Green is a lecturer in secondary education at the College of St Mark and St John, Plymouth

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