Anthony Seldon: All the world's a stage, for children too

The increasingly popular IGCSE exam makes the study of Shakespeare optional
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The Independent Online

Britain is again ruled by a triumvirate; Cameron, Clegg and Osborne. What better way could there be for the young mind to understand the power-play involved, than to read Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, where the Roman Empire was ruled over by Mark Antony, Octavius Caesar and the ineffectual Lepidus. Super-injunctions and the desire of the powerful to obscure the truth at all costs, meanwhile, can be grasped by looking at the manipulative Claudius in Hamlet. The outpouring of joy at the marriage of William and Kate is reflected in the joyful endings in marriage of Shakespeare's comedies, while the personality traits of the men now dominating world news: Osama bin Laden, Muammar Gaddafi or the Syrian tyrant Bashar al Assad, can be understood by reading Macbeth or Richard III.

Shakespeare is the English language's greatest playwright. Yet we run the risk of covering him in aspic rather than seeing him as the best source imaginable of creative excitement for our young. Worse still is the risk that British schools pay only lip service to him, deeming him either "too difficult" or "not contemporary enough" to appeal to schoolgoers.

Shakespeare is under pressure in the classroom. The Coalition is wary of anything "creative" in schools, believing the left used it as a way to blunt the drive for academic standards. The number of students aged 11 to 14 who have seen a live performance of a Shakespeare play fell by 50 per cent in the past two years, according to the RSC's research. The dropping in October 2008 of tests for all pupils at 14 was greeted with relief by the teaching profession, but has not helped the cause of Shakespeare, whose plays were a compulsory element.

The new specifications for English and English Literature GCSEs, which came onstream in 2010, downgrade the importance of exploring Shakespeare through theatre in favour of film. The increasingly popular IGCSE exam, meanwhile, makes the study of Shakespeare optional. Growing numbers of teachers are joining the profession to teach literature with only scant knowledge of the Bard.

Yet, Shakespeare has never been more necessary for our young. His plays can bring humanity and scholarship into the class, and for all children, not just the brightest. His unparalleled use of language, skill as a poet and courageous illumination of the things that matter in our lives, can awaken deep thoughts and feelings in every child. Classroom walls should be festooned with Shakespeare's words, as should school corridors and noticeboards. He needs to come off the page and live in the hearts and minds of our children.

Think of his memorable phrases: "wear my heart upon my sleeve", "more in sorrow than in anger", "in my mind's eye", "as dead as a doornail", "vanished into thin air", "fight fire with fire", "wild goose chase", "good riddance", "the game is up" and "the truth will out". A fight-back is already being spearheaded by brave teachers and theatre companies. The Royal Shakespeare Company, now in its 50th anniversary year, has moved into schools big time, with roadshows and shortened plays. Michael Boyd, the RSC's artistic director has rightly made it his mission to ensure that every child in the country can develop "a life-long relationship with Shakespeare."

But it is in acting him out, that Shakespeare comes fully into his own in schools. From primary level onwards, children should be getting the opportunity to enact the plots, the twists and assume the characters of the Shakespearean repertoire. Desks should be shoved aside to allow full vent for the creativity and passions to come out. Deep emotions and deep truths should be unleashed. In our super-fast world, pupils need grounding, emotionally and intellectually, and no one, does that better than Shakespeare.

The writer is Master of Wellington College