Why all is not well in the world of Shakespeare

15th September 2006 at 01:00
* RSCattacks poor teacher training and exams

* Many sixth-formers can not spell his name

* Key stage 3 pupils tested only on extracts

Something is rotten in the state of education. Shakespeare may be the most famous author who ever lived, but thousands of children are shunning the Bard because schools are failing to bring his work to life.

The Royal Shakespeare Company believes a lack of live performances, the poor structure of exams and weak teacher training are combining to present a skewed vision of the Bard. Quite simply, many teenagers are leaving school saying: "It was all Greek to me."

Simon Wrigley, chairman of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said: "Shakespeare seems to have been hijacked by testing regimes to the extent that children cannot see it as relevant to their lives.

Because of a lack of opportunity to experience live performances, Shakespeare remains alien to many children and, unfortunately, a burden rather than a joy."

This is not to say that Shakespeare's star is waning. More than 390 years after his death, he remains the most talked about playwright in the world.

His plays still sell by the thousands - Oxford University Press shifts some 10,000 a year of his most popular works - and he remains the most filmed author of all time: there are some 400 films based on his productions.

Over the years, considerable effort has been made to capitalise on his popularity among children. For the past six years the Shakespeare Schools Festival, an independent charity which lists Dame Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey among its patrons, has put on abridged productions of his most famous plays for children in local professional theatres.

The Globe Theatre says that more than 50,000 students take part in its own workshops, inservice training and distance learning programmes every year.

This week, the Globe unveiled two new projects - in partnership with the Government and Deutsche Bank - to improve children's understanding of the Bard.JTheyJincluded the launch of a new production of a Shakespeare play aimed specifically at children, with 4,500 pupils given free tickets, andJa new three-year research project to assess the impact of creative ways toJteach Shakespeare to 11 to 14-year-olds.

But there are persistent concerns that when it comes to Shakespeare, too many children still do not get it. A report last year by Edexcel, the exam board, expressed alarm that many sixth-formers could not spell the name Shakespeare in a paper entitled "Shakespeare in context".

This year, a survey by the Social and Market Strategic Research consultancy showed that almost half of teachers thought the Shakespeare test for 14-year-olds was pitched correctly.

For the RSC, this strikes at the heart of the problem. Maria Evans, director of learning, says in The TES this week that too many pupils are served sanitised slices of Shakespeare, ruining their appreciation of his work. Furthermore, she says, KS3 exams, which require pupils to study just two scenes of a play, result in youngsters blindly memorising lines "without the wider context".

Dr Bethan Marshall, senior lecturer in English at King's college, University of London, shares this view. "Shakespeare shaped the way we think and use the English language," she said. "If any child is going to study English, they need to study the person who had the biggest single impact on the way it has developed.

"One of my main concerns is the KS3 testing regime. This is pupils' first statutory encounter and they are assessed in a stupid and un-engaging way.

It is a deathly introduction and turns many students off Shakespeare altogether."

King Edward VI school in Stratford-upon-Avon, believed to be the school Shakespeare attended, stages at least three productions every year. Perry Mills, assistant head, said: "When teachers are pushed for time, it is easy to sit them down and resort to text-bashing, but you are immediately putting a barrier between the pupils and the work.

"Talk to any actor or director and they'll say they got into Shakespeare because they had an enthusiastic teacher."

Of course, even within the current assessment framework, many schools still manage to bring the Bard to life. The problem is, for too many children, he remains more of a pain than a pleasure.

* graeme.paton@tes.co.uk

Platform, page 19

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