MINISTERS lose "all grasp of common sense" when the issue of Shakespeare in the curriculum arises, a former leading government adviser has said.
Professor David Hargreaves, who headed the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, spoke out as The TES learned that Prince Charles aims to re-run his summer school in English and history.
He hopes to repeat last year's event which brought state school teachers together with some of the country's best-known writers and historians, probably in East Anglia.
The Prince of Wales is a member of the traditionalist lobby which argues that English and history lessons are neglecting our heritage.
Shakespeare has been a constant source of conflict between ministers and teachers since former education secretary John Patten first proposed tests on the Bard at key stage 3 in 1993.
Professor Hargreaves questioned the preoccupation with the study of Shakespeare and told The TES that English at key stage 4 needed to be much more flexible.
"Clearly Shakespeare is an important figure and part of our literary heritage. But we need to debate the nature of Shakespeare in a mature way that recognises there are important differences between children of different ages."
Professor Hargreaves believes all pupils should be given the chance to see the plays as drama and not merely as literary exercises. And he is concerned at the decline of the school play. "A very important part of children's education in Shakespeare is seeing a Shakespeare play.
"There was a period when we put much more emphasis on drama and school plays. There aren't nearly as many of those as there were. Being in a play and seeing one is crucial to our literary heritage. You see the magical leap from words to your imagination, with which you conjure up a new world."
Since the KS3 Shakespeare tests were introduced all education secretaries have faced controversy over them. But each has taken a traditionalist line against teachers. In 1996 the then Tory education secretary Gillian Shephard rejected calls from teachers to replace Shakespeare tests for 14-year-olds by teacher assessment.
Three years later David Blunkett vetoed calls to drop compulsory Shakespeare at KS3.
In 2000 Estelle Morris blocked a recommendation by the QCA to cut the length of the KS3 Shakespeare exam by 15 minutes.
And this month Charles Clarke demanded an explanation from the QCA after The TES revealed pupils could gain more than half the marks in the new KS3 tests without any knowledge of the Bard.
The Department for Education and Skills has now agreed to meet English teachers who attended the Prince of Wales summer school to discuss the KS3 tests.
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