At the chalkface: Poetry is not an option

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:
Ian Whitwham is a teacher of English, now retired, who spent many years working in the state school system of inner city London

This initiative is bone-stupid, philistine, condescending, insulting. Who are these “respondents”, these blockheads, who wouldn’t know a poem if it bit them in the bum? Ian Whitwham on Ofqual's plan to shelve poetry...

Ofqual, exams watchdog, catalyst of chaos, prompter of U-turns and well-known algorithm, has been, as we’ve seen, antic with edicts, busy sabotaging the entire exam system.

And that’s not all.

Let’s not forget a previous omnishambles, another catastrophe. Ofqual consulted “respondents” about next year’s GCSE English Lit exam. These “respondents” felt that one component of exam could be dumped.

And what might that be?
Poetry.
Why are we not surprised?
Poetry, the highest expression known to man, will be “optional”.
Why?
"Due to the impact of coronavirus on education.”
Ah.

A side-effect of Covid-19 would seem to be an inability to contemplate poetry. The tiny teenage mind implodes. It would therefore be “extremely challenging” to attempt to teach it. Pupils would struggle “to get to grips with complex literary texts remotely”.

My tiny mind struggles to “remotely” get to grips with the adverb – and the rest of this sentence. Is it trying to suggest that students can “get to grips” with less complex texts – like Shakespeare, who is still not optional?

Last time I looked, he was an infinitely complex, challenging poet – it’s why my pupils liked him so much.

This initiative is bone-stupid, philistine, condescending, insulting. Who are these “respondents”, these blockheads, who wouldn’t know a poem if it bit them in the bum? Thomas Gradgrind, Gavin Williamson, Donald Duck? Who knows?

And this just might be the thin edge of a wedge.

Simon Armitage, poet laureate, thinks so – “a dangerous first step”.

Michael Rosen, straight off his Covid sick bed, thinks so: “Poetry offers a view on humanity, society and the world that is playful, contemplative, mysterious, questioning.”

Kate Clanchy, poet and teacher, thinks so. Poetry is absolutely “central”, never peripheral. It heals. It’s never been so necessary, so urgent, so popular with the young in these strange times. It’s shared all over social media, National poetry day (October 1) will double its following – there’s been a 160 per cent increase in visitors on the Poetry Society’s website during lockdown and there’s a renaissance of so many young, exciting and diverse poets already done in schools.

It should be the one inviolate area of the subject.
I’m getting paranoid…
Is this rank incompetence or malign intention?
Is middle management trying to kill English?
If poetry goes, English goes.
I’m sure most teachers will stick with the poetry section.
Pupils and teachers deserve better.
It’s not looking good.

“All poetry is magic,” said Charles Causley. “It is a spell against insensitivity, failure of imagination, ignorance and barbarism.”

These seem a little in the ascendant at present. It deals in its opposite, in ambiguity, uncertainty, metaphor, mystery. Pupils can deal with this. They relish it, if they have the chance.

I fear the barbarians are at the gates. Who can we turn to?

The hapless Gavin? If he hasn’t been sacked before schools go back or made a bit “optional”. Go on Gavin!

It’s your last shot at redemption.


  • Ian Whitwham is a teacher of English, now retired, who spent many years working in the state school system of inner city London. He has written for SecEd since 2003. Read his most recent articles at http://bit.ly/2UIMd1O


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