Bard or Bored: In the Light of the Continuing Debate about the Role of Shakespeare in the Curriculum, Rebecca Selman Reflects on Her Survey of Learners' Experiences of Shakespeare in School

Article excerpt

Shakespeare is an inevitable and necessary part of school activity
because he is ... our greatest English writer (Newbolt Report,
1921)

Candidates, particularly the less able, should be steered away from
'The Works of William Shakespeare' (all of them!) (North West
Regional Examination Board for CSE, Reports on the 1983
Examinations, quoted by Alan Sinfield, 1985)

... every pupil should be given at least some experience of the
plays or poetry of Shakespeare. (English for Ages 5-16, 1989)
Shakespeare is the envy of the world. It is vital that pupils learn
their Shakespeare. (Education spokesperson, 2002)

Cramming for an exam does not encourage pupils to engage with the
significance that is Shakespeare. (Bethan Marshall, 2004)

Above is a selection of comments on the teaching and assessment of Shakespeare in the UK secondary school system, reflecting a diversity of opinions and spanning nearly 90 years: from the optimistic and inclusive views of the government document, The Teaching of English in England, more commonly referred to as the Newbolt Report, to the elitist view of the CSE Examination Board and the concerns about the effects of assessing Shakespeare by examination at Key Stage 3 articulated by Bethan Marshall. I start my article with these as a way of providing an overview of the changing position of Shakespeare in the secondary English curriculum and differing opinions about the way he should be taught. Whilst politicians and educationalists agree on the important place occupied by Shakespeare within the English literary heritage there is ongoing debate about whether this means everyone should study him, at what age the study of Shakespeare should begin, how he should be taught, whether he should be assessed formally, and if so how and when.

The learner's experience

Whilst all these debates rumble on, what has struck me is the way in which the learner's experience of Shakespeare is too often neglected. English teachers are all too aware of how often students approach the study of Shakespeare with trepidation and expectations of boredom (based either on former experiences or prejudices instilled from parents, siblings etc), but conversely of how often they can become engaged during the study of Shakespeare, but can then become switched off when the assessment process comes into action. This seems to be particularly the case with the teaching of Shakespeare for the Key Stage 3 SATS.

But what happens once the students have left education? What do they feel about Shakespeare then? We might assume that those who study English at A Level and beyond are positive about Shakespeare and their experience of studying him, though this is not necessarily the case. Did some people really not study Shakespeare before he was made compulsory in the National Curriculum of 1989? Has compulsory Shakespeare proved beneficial? Has the work of Rex Gibson and the Shakespeare and Schools Project at the Cambridge Institute of Education transformed the teaching, and thus learners' enjoyment, of Shakespeare? Have SATS detrimentally affected the classroom experience of Shakespeare? Can Shakespeare still be experienced as 'something delightful' (Newbolt p. 314) within the 'straitjacket' of government assessment? (Atherton, 2005, p. 6).

I decided to explore these questions further for an essay I was writing for my MA in Teaching English with Shakespeare's Globe run by King's College London. For the preliminary research I surveyed my teaching colleagues about their school experiences of Shakespeare between the ages of 11 and 16. The school, Lady Margaret School in the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, is a small high-achieving girls' 11-18 C of E state school. It has a student body of around 580 and a teaching staff of 48, 41 of whom were educated within the UK education system. Of these, 32 completed the survey. These 32 respondents cover 36 years of the UK secondary school system, with the oldest starting secondary education in 1958 and the youngest in 1994. …