Shakespeare reserved for bright pupils

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LESS ABLE children are barred by law from writing about Shakespeare in the national English tests for 14-year-olds.

Despite exhortations from the Prince of Wales and ministers to promote Shakespeare in schools, government advisers on exams have ruled that pupils of lesser ability must stick to a statutory book list which includes Our Day Out by Willy Russell but no Shakespeare play.

Ministers decided last year that less able 14-year-olds should not be tested on whole Shakespeare plays. Brighter ones must study Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, or A Midsummer Night's Dream. The rest will be tested only on the 'All the world's a stage' speech from As You Like It. The tests are divided into three levels of difficulty, and teachers have to decide which level each pupil should sit.

Teachers protested that all children can enjoy a full Shakespeare text. One Hertfordshire comprehensive, which teaches pupils of all abilities whole Shakespeare plays, thought it had found a way around the problem. It asked the School Examinations and Assessment Council if below average 14-year-olds could use their knowledge in the tests.

Bill Grimwood, who teaches English at Queens' School, Bushey, asked if his less able pupils could write about Shakespeare plays in a paper in which they have to pick a story or play and answer questions about it.

The answer was no. When Mr Grimwood asked officials to make it clear whether pupils who did so would be penalised, David Hawker, the council's senior professional officer, replied that the Shakespeare plays set for brighter pupils could not be used, and that if a school failed to abide by the regulations, its marks would not be officially approved. If this happens, the marks will not be reported to parents.

Mr Grimwood said: 'Our lower ability pupils are quite capable of answering generic questions using whole Shakespeare plays. It is an absolute nonsense to stop them. One said to me recently that Romeo and Juliet was the best book he had ever read. Either we enter these students for the harder papers, where they might find some of the questions too difficult, or we teach them a different curriculum.'

A spokeswoman for the council said: 'It is misleading to talk about penalising children.' The book list for the lower levels is statutory, so the mark schemes will not give points for extraneous comments. To suggest otherwise is a bit like saying you have done Hamlet as a set book but you are going to answer questions about King Lear. There is nothing to stop teachers teaching all children the full text of a Shakespeare play if they wish. She said there were good reasons why less able children were not examined on an entire Shakespeare text.

'For every teacher who is bitterly complaining about children being disenfranchised from Shakespeare, how many more would be upset if testing were compulsory for this group?'

Anne Barnes, of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said: 'Shakespeare was writing plays for a mixed-ability audience. All children from primary school upwards have a chance to read and perform Shakespeare. It isn't necessarily done in an academic way.'

She said there was a problem with the way Shakespeare was being tested at 14. The tests were geared too much to people's memories of how they were taught Shakespeare at A-level, she said.

John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, attacked an English language GCSE exam question based on an advertisement for hamburgers, at last year's Conservative Party conference. He said: 'I want Shakespeare in our classrooms, not Ronald McDonald.'