Advisers urge cut in length of Bard exam

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The Independent Online

The amount of time teenagers spend being examined on the works of William Shakespeare should be cut, the Government's exam watchdog recommended yesterday.

The proposal was immediately rejected by Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education, who insisted that the Bard must remain a key part of tests taken by every 14-year-old.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority suggested that the Shakespeare test for 14-year-olds should be cut from an hour to 45 minutes to "better reflect the amount of time spent on Shakespeare" in the early years of secondary school.

But aides to Ms Morris said she was furious at the "nonsensical" suggestion which she believed would send "completely the wrong signal" to pupils. A senior official said: "Shakespeare is the envy of the world. It is vital that pupils learn their Shakespeare. It would be nonsense to water it down at any stage of secondary schooling. The idea that children should not study Macbeth or Hamlet is simply wrong."

The suggestion that the Bard was no longer relevant to pupils' lives was ridiculous, the official said. "They are wonderful stories and great literature," he said.

The proposals from the exams authority, which advises ministers on the curriculum and testing, also provoked an outcry from traditionalists. Nick Seaton, from the Campaign for Real Education, said the recommendation would downgrade an important part of Britain's cultural heritage.

A spokesman for the authority defended the proposals. "The emphasis is on improving the quality of the tests overall," he said. "A key aspect of this in English is to ensure that the balance between the different elements of the test – reading, writing, Shakespeare – is as closely aligned as possible with the balance of these elements in the national curriculum."

It is not the first time the exams authority has tried to cut the amount of Shakespeare taught and tested in secondary schools. Earlier attempts also met with a furious response from ministers.

In 1997, David Blunkett, then the Secretary of State for Education, rejected plans to abolish the compulsory test on Shakespeare for 14-year-olds. Last year, the authority advised Mr Blunkett that the GCSE English exam should be changed to put more emphasis on grammar and literacy.

It suggested dropping poetry, novels and drama – including Shakespeare – in favour of media studies and linguistics.

The subsequent furore forced Mr Blunkett to reject the proposals, saying it was perfectly possible to improve children's written English without abandoning the Bard.

The new GCSE syllabuses that come into effect in the autumn will still contain compulsory questions on Shakespeare. But the new courses will give a higher profile to modern non-fiction. Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby's tale of life as an Arsenal supporter, and Pole to Pole, Michael Palin's account of his travels for his BBC television series, will be among the works studied.