Shakespeare test put tradition in context

4th July 2003 at 01:00
The key stage 3 Sats external marking experience is over. The papers are soon to be returned to schools. Those breezeblocks of pain, parcelled and labelled, will be gone from the spare room where they have been squatting for weeks. Whether it was a good idea to agree to mark the English paper is a subject on which I will not be drawn. The fact remains that a huge volume of external marking must now take place, and only teachers can do it.

The Shakespeare paper came in for a huge amount of criticism, with accusations that it was not academic enough; that the tasks set had too great a distance from Shakespeare himself. Questions were asked on the Today programme. Then the issue faded away. But the damage had been done; the achievement of the candidates devalued and their teachers' work trivialised. It is only in such a context that the work of students is ever discussed.

Yet what had they been asked to do? They had to assess part of the play they had studied - Henry V, Twelfth Night or Macbeth - then write about leadership, fashion or villainy. It was this that caused the usual suspects to bump on about declining standards. What has this to do with the Bard? It was so unfair and ill-informed. The plays were used as stimulus, as an aid to thinking about issues raised during their study, giving young people a chance to develop and explore ideas. What's wrong with that?

They had an opportunity to write about Shakespeare and his work. They had access to the great literary tradition. But they had a chance to relate some of the concepts to their own world. In exploring villainy they made links with Coronation Street and EastEnders, and made the literary tradition relevant to themselves. They connected across the centuries. They could see how writers in the past have reflected upon timeless elements of the human experience. What is wrong with that? They haven't been denied an opportunity to connect with their cultural heritage as some have implied.

Far from it. They have been given an opportunity to reflect upon it and to see links.

What motivates these comments? A need to believe standards have declined? That schools today turn out ill-educated morons? Of course we don't. Our society creates them. Teachers and exams bring more people into contact with our cultural heritage than anything else. If they choose to reject it, then so be it. It was ever thus.

I might question the whole idea of key stage 3 exams, but I would defend the candidates' achievements. Whatever the inadequacies of the system, the students' ability shines through. Goodness knows, the exam was over-complicated. It didn't tell us anything about candidates that their teachers didn't know before. But remember, these kids are 14. And they have been writing about Shakespeare in a way the rest of us didn't do until we were older.

Geoff Brookes is deputy head of Cefn Hengoed school, Swansea

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