Teachers angered by new papers which cut number of marks linked to knowledge of the Bard. Warwick Mansell reports
PUPILS will be able to score more than half marks on the Shakespeare test for 14-year-olds without reading a single word of the Bard's plays.
The Government's curriculum quango is facing fresh accusations of "dumbing down" the syllabus after English teachers complained of "ghastly" changes.
This is less than a year after ministers vetoed a proposal from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority that the length of the Shakespeare paper be cut.
Some 600,000 teenagers will take revamped national tests in English, maths and science in May. Shakespeare is one of three papers taken in English and will consist of a section on reading and one on writing.
But guidance sent to schools confirms that only the reading section, worth 18 out of 38 marks and based on text from two scenes from one of Henry V, Twelfth Night and Macbeth, requires any understanding of Shakespeare.
The writing element, worth 20 marks, is meant to gauge pupils' linguistic and grammatical skills. Teachers argue that, although ostensibly relating to Shakespeare, the subject matter is irrelevant.
A sample question sent to schools and related to Twelfth Night, tells pupils that Malvolio is a character who "does not like people to have fun and enjoy themselves".
Pupils are then asked to imagine they are a modern-day Malvolio, in charge of preventing any enjoyment at their school. They have to write a talk for an assembly, in favour, for example, of banning chips in the canteen, or jokes, or sports.
Dr Bethan Marshall, of King's College, London, said: "This is a ghastly attempt to make Shakespeare contemporary. The writing section is ludicrous because it has nothing to do with the play itself."
Simon Gibbons, secretary of the London Association for the Teaching of English, said: "This is going to be confusing for pupils. Some will write lots about Hamlet, say, or Macbeth, and get no credit for it."
Some teachers believe the QCA is making a second attempt to cut down on the amount of time devoted to Shakespeare, after a clash with ministers. Last year it recommended that time spent on testing Shakespeare should be cut from one hour to 45 minutes.
But former education secretary Estelle Morris overruled the plan which was likely to provoke an outcry from traditionalists.
Compulsory Shakespeare was included in the key stage 3 tests a decade ago at former education secretary John Patten's insistence. Many teachers say the plays should be tested through coursework.
The criticisms are part of wider claims that the English tests have been "dumbed down" this year.
Critics claim they no longer look for literary appreciation, instead favouring bite-sized questions that merely test knowledge of grammar.
The sample Shakespeare questions were sent out to schools only towards the end of last term, angering teachers who said that this was too late to prepare pupils properly.
Jackie Bawden, QCA manager of assessment, said the tests had been extensively piloted over two years with teachers and pupils.
She said the new writing tests were designed to enable pupils to use Shakespeare as a "springboard" for their writing skills. Previously, their writing had been assessed simply through their answers to questions on the play. But it was better to assess reading and writing separately, as different skills were involved.
"It would be difficult to do well without an understanding of the play," she added.
Representatives of the three largest teachers' unions are to meet to discuss balloting on a boycott of all national tests this year. English teachers' anger at key stage 3 could give the move added weight.
When watching Henry V, the audience might admire the king as a strong leader and a hero.
The following poster has been put up in your local library:
"Calling all young writers! The library is producing a collection of writing called: 'People we admire'.
If you would like to contribute to this collection, you should:
* Choose a famous person or someone you know.
* Review what this person has achieved.
* Explain what qualities make this person so special."
Write your contribution for "People we admire".