Shakespeare may be dropped from key stage 3 Sats in English as part of a shake-up of testing.
Single-level tests in English, which could replace Sats by 2010 and can be taken by pupils between the ages of seven and 14, do not include a Shakespeare section.
Single-level tests in English and maths are being piloted in more than 400 schools in 2007-9 and could replace Sats if the trial is deemed successful. At the same time, the Government has announced trials of new materials to help teachers assess pupils' progress in studying the Bard, without the use of tests. The materials, for key stage 3 pupils, are being piloted in schools which are also trialling the single-level tests.
The assessment of Shakespeare through national tests at key stage 3 has been controversial since John Patten, a former Conservative education secretary, introduced compulsory testing of the Bard in 1993. Calls for this to be replaced by teacher assessment date back at least 12 years. In 1996, Mr Patten's successor, Gillian Shephard, rejected calls for KS3 Shakespeare tests to be replaced by assessment. Primary pupils are not tested on Shakespeare.
At KS3, pupils are currently tested on one of three Shakespeare plays, although this is being reduced to two - The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet - next year. Extracts from the play on which they will be tested are announced in advance.
Teachers have long complained that this makes for a boring experience for pupils. Two years ago, writing in the TES, Maria Evans, director of learning at the Royal Shakespeare Company, said pupils were studying the tested scenes repetitively and without gaining a sense of their context in the play.
Advocates of teacher assessment say it allows pupils' overall understanding of the play, including appreciation of it in production, to be monitored more effectively than through tests, and valued in schools.
Last week, the Government announced that a new tool to help teachers assess key stage 3 pupils' understanding of Shakespeare in class would be piloted in 40 schools from September. This would "encourage lively and active approaches to Shakespeare that engage with the text as something to be performed; involve the study of the whole play; and consider Shakespeare in a wider cultural and literary context", said the Department for Children, Schools and Families. It is to be backed with pound;1.5 million to enable all secondary schools which are piloting single-level tests to take their pupils to live Shakespeare performances.
Ministers are also sending a free copy of a DVD of Shakespeare: the Animated Tales to all primary schools, and a booklet of tried and tested teaching ideas on the Bard is being sent to all schools. This meant, said the Government, that pupils as young as five would be taught about the great playwright.
Keith Davidson, of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said: "We have always argued that teacher assessment is the only way to assess Shakespeare. The questions in the tests are laughable. They are based on a fragment, of a bit, of a passage of a text, and they do nothing to assess a pupil's appreciation."