Coming of Age in Shakespeare: A-Levels to University: Carol Atherton Reports on a Discussion about Teaching Shakespeare at the British Shakespeare Association's Annual Conference

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Panel Chair: Sean McEvoy (Varndean College, Brighton) Panellists: Carol Atherton (Bourne Grammar School), Ewan Fernie (Royal Holloway University of London), Andrew Hadfield (University of Sussex), Michelle O'Callaghan (University of Reading), Luke Walters (Reading Blue Coat School)

First, a disclaimer. I get very twitchy about the issue of transition. I am uneasy with the deficit model that it seems to set up: the assumption that students are not adequately prepared for degree level study and that this is because teachers aren't doing their jobs properly. Second, a bit of an excuse: if students aren't prepared for the study of Shakespeare at university, then wasn't it ever thus? I'm not sure I was fantastically well prepared for my study of Shakespeare at degree level, back in the early 1990s. I was, however, very well prepared for the Shakespeare questions I had to answer at A-level; and that was, after all, my teachers' main job: I knew my set plays inside-out and back to front, and could write on them in three-hour long closed-text exams that would make my current students blanch. My study of Shakespeare at university demanded something very different: an ability to move between plays and genres, to have a sense of performance history, and to see Shakespeare as a test-case for critical and theoretical debates. In a sense, I didn't need to be particularly well-prepared, since I didn't 'do' Shakespeare until the final year of my degree (this being Oxford, we had to work our way up to Shakespeare). But the issue of transition was also much less acute then. Today, in a very different kind of educational environment, it generates a huge amount of debate. Yet rarely have these debates taken the form of a sustained face-to-face conversation between representatives from schools and HE, and rarely have they focused on one author. It was perhaps inevitable that when they did, that author would be Shakespeare.

Last September, at the British Shakespeare Association's conference Coming of Age in Shakespeare, teachers from both sectors had the chance to discuss the issue of transition in more detail. Our panel, skilfully chaired by Sean McEvoy, was asked to consider the question 'How well prepared are today's eighteen-year olds for the study of Shakespeare at university? 'The discussion was detailed and fascinating, highlighting issues of pedagogy and subject knowledge and a range of shared frustrations, and drew a number of interesting contributions from the audience.

Experiences of Shakespeare

We began by outlining some of the experiences of Shakespeare that the average eighteen-year old will have when embarking on an English degree, and the paradoxical status that Shakespeare occupies in the secondary curriculum. Shakespeare is, of course, the only author that all students have to study under the current National Curriculum: students who have taken English Literature at A-level will have studied at least three of Shakespeare's plays (one at Key Stage Three, one for GCSE, and one at AS level, with the option to study another at A2). Because of this, however, he is also the most closely policed author, with the study of Shakespeare being prescribed and circumscribed by a host of assessment objectives, recommendations and requirements. Sean McEvoy outlined the ways in which the new A-level specifications can be seen as narrowing students' encounters with Shakespeare still further, focusing on genre and connections between texts rather than requiring the traditional detailed study of individual plays.

This narrowness is also apparent in the range of plays studied. The panellists from HE, plus a number of members of the audience, alluded to the fact that undergraduates tend to have encountered the same well-worn plays and topics: they know an awful lot about disguise in Twelfth Night but very little about plays beyond the traditional school canon. …