This winter's tale is really a victory for the progressives

30th January 2004 at 00:00
It has been portrayed as a victory for traditionalists. But the decision to remove a controversial "dumbed down" Shakespeare writing task from national curriculum tests represents the first win for progressives in years of battles over the Bard.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has announced that, from 2005, the writing element of the key stage 3 Shakespeare test is to be scrapped.

There was an outcry a year ago when The TES revealed that the 2003 tests would give pupils the chance to score more than half of the marks on the Shakespeare paper without any knowledge of his work.

Pupils answering the Henry V question were told that Henry gave "a number of speeches to encourage his troops in battle", and were asked to write an inspirational speech, say, as a captain of a sports team.

So now the unloved test is to be no more after consultation confirmed serious unhappiness among teachers.

Was this not, then, a triumph for those defending traditional Shakespeare teaching?

Well, no. No one should forget why this year's test ended up as it did. The 2003 Shakespeare writing task was the classic bodged compromise between the QCA, which wanted less time spent testing Shakespeare, and the Government, which feared this would upset traditionalists.

In 2002, the QCA put forward a recommendation to ministers to cut the length of time testing the Bard at KS3 from one hour to 45 minutes. Instead of two papers, one on Shakespeare and one on general reading and writing, there should be three: one on Shakespeare comprehension, one on reading and one on writing.

It argued that the number of marks then given to the Shakespeare paper, at 38 out of 99, was too high because teachers only spend one term out of nine teaching the Bard at KS3.

But Estelle Morris, the former education secretary, vetoed the plan. The Shakespeare paper increased to 75 minutes, with reading and writing elements. But the writing element was barely connected to Shakespeare.

Now the QCA's decision, approved by ministers, has reversed Ms Morris's move and resulted in exactly what it wanted in the first place.

There will be three papers: reading, writing and Shakespeare. And there will be no extra Shakespeare in place of the controversial writing test - it is being replaced by an extra writing task on an unspecified subject.

The amount of time spent testing the Bard will be 45 minutes, which is down from one hour in 2002, as the QCA originally recommended.

And the number of marks attributed to the Shakespeare paper has fallen from 38 out of 99 in 2002, in line with the amount of time spent teaching Shakespeare.

It is possible to argue that as only 22 marks of the 38 on Shakespeare in 2002 were given for understanding of the play (the rest were allocated to an assessment of pupils' writing skills while answering questions on a play), Shakespeare's importance has not been downgraded.

But this was exactly the point the QCA was originally making when Ms Morris overruled them.

There have been constant battles over the Bard since John Patten, a former Tory education secretary, introduced compulsory testing on Shakespeare in 1993. They have always resulted in victory for traditionalists.

Not this time though - and one suspects the QCA would not be too unhappy if this went largely unnoticed.

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