Shakespeare is the sole survivor of watchdog's school curriculum plan

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A list prescribing the authors and poets for children to study from the start of their secondary schooling should be scrapped, government exams watchdogs say.

The move is part of a radical overhaul of the national curriculum which will also see study of the British Empire move to the heart of the history curriculum.

Overall, the package aims to give teachers more freedom over how they approach lessons.

Until now, teachers have been told that pupils must study at least four poets and two authors from before 1914 as part of the curriculum for 11- to 14-year-olds. These includes Milton, Wordsworth, Dickens and Austen. They are expected to study a similar number of post-1914 writers.

However, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), which advises ministers on the shape of the curriculum, is now proposing leaving it up to teachers to decide what their pupils should study.

Only Shakespeare survives as a compulsory element of the curriculum, with pupils to be compulsorily tested on one of his plays at 14, as at present.

The move is certain to cause controversy in the education and artistic worlds.

Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate, believes it would be a "deep crime" if pupils were never to study "things like Paradise Lost, some key Shakespeares, William Wordsworth's The Prelude [and] Great Expectations".

However, Bethan Marshall, an education lecturer at King's College, London and member of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said teachers would back the move.

"I used to love teaching Edgar Allan Poe. When I was teaching in west London, I gave my very diverse class different texts to look at from the poetry of Tagore to the novels of Marquez as well as both Tennyson and Shakespeare. In the current curriculum, some of these writers would not count at all," she said.

The proposed curriculum also stresses for the first time that pupils should visit theatres and talk to actors.

The decision to stress the importance of teaching about the British Empire in history lessons is also likely be controversial. Traditionalists often argue that its importance has been downgraded in the curriculum in favour of world history.

Lord Skidelsky said: "Pupils should take in the narrative sweep of British history. They should be taught the highlights: Magna Carta, the Armada, the Civil War and Glorious Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the two World Wars and the rise and fall of the British Empire. The history of our country explains so much about our attitudes to the continent of Europe today."

The focus on the British Empire, spelt out for the first time as a compulsory element, could answer criticism from ethnic minority groups who say the current curriculum neglects the part they have played in the UK's history.

The proposed guidelines say pupils should study "how the past has helped to shape the identities, shared cultures, values and attitudes in Britain today".

The recommendations have been put out for consultation until November.