Poor teachers make poetry a bore for pupils, claims Motion

Subject has same cachet as clog dancing, former poet laureate tells Richard Garner
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The Independent Online

Poetry is written off by too many pupils as "a bore" and is often put on a par with clog dancing by the public, according to a former poet laureate.

Sir Andrew Motion warned that many teachers saw the subject as a "problem" to teach. "It is almost inevitable that they should pass on to the people they are teaching their anxieties and insecurities and confusions," he said. "The people who suffer are the children."

Sir Andrew said the fact that half of the country's English teachers did not have a degree in the subject was a key reason why they lacked the ability to enthuse pupils about poetry. "There is a very serious problem with confidence," he added. "At an absurdly basic level, we have to tackle how it is presented to teachers at teacher training colleges.

"Poetry is commonly described as a valuable part of our national life. But by common consent the existing general audience for it is much smaller than it could be and the enthusiasm for it in schools is less than it should be.

"Indeed, poetry in schools is often seen as 'a problem' by many teachers and as a bore by many pupils. Outside schools, it is often regarded as being on a par with clog dancing."

Sir Andrew's comments coincide with the release today of a report on how to improve poetry teaching in schools. The study, commissioned by the Arts Council England and published by Booktrust, calls for more training for all would-be teachers in how to approach poetry in class. Sir Andrew wants more poets to visit schools. "Poetry should not just be the preserve of the English class," he said. "It can be used in history, geography, citizenship – even maths – to bring lessons to life."

One of the problems, said Sir Andrew, 58, was that children were fed "too narrow a diet" of poetry in schools. To prove this point, he cited the example of students following a postgraduate course in creative writing that he teaches at the University of London. "Intrinsically, they have all read two poets – Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy [the current Poet Laureate] at school," he said. "Great. They're two fantastic poets but they should mix it up more."

He also pointed to the murder of teenager Ben Kinsella, whose sister Brooke Kinsella, a former EastEnders actress, has since campaigned against knife use, as an example of how poetry could help children come to terms with their emotions. "[Ben] was killed at the top of my street and overnight quite a large tribute appeared in his memory. There were bunches of roses, flowers and photographs.

"But among all this, a number of tributes could also be downloaded from the internet in the form of poems – the majority of which were written by his friends.

"Some were horribly badly spelt but they were powerful as evidence that poetry is the form that people turn to at moments of crisis."

Sir Andrew still vists schools on a about once a week to promote poetry. "My first question when I sit down is who has written poems. About three people nervously put up their hands, attracting quite a lot of attention to themselves from friends who did not know they were doing it," he said. "I then ask them when did they last go to a wedding, or a funeral? There is always a poem at a funeral. It is just a very good way of pointing out to people that poetry is part and parcel of their life."