GCSE English Syllabus 2021: Time to Bar the Bard?

GCSE English Syllabus 2021 Time to Bar the Bard

Whether via the GCSE English Syllabus 2021 or otherwise, it’s fair to say I love Shakespeare. I’ve read all the plays and seen them all performed. I live in the town where he was born. I themed my wedding around a Shakespeare play and have bits of that same play tattooed all over me. My husband and I named our son after a Shakespeare character. We named our house after a Shakespearean theatre feature. Yep, when it comes to Shakespeare, I am a superfan.

But here’s the rub (to borrow Hamlet’s turn of phrase): Shakespeare can be hard. It can be hard to teach; it can be hard to like; it can be hard to write about. And it has the distinct disadvantage that it comes with a lot of baggage: most students have decided they dislike the bard before you even introduce him into the classroom, let alone work through the GCSE English Syllabus 2021.

Of course, there are exceptions. Some teachers are fantastic at making Shakespeare come to life. Some students adore him almost as much as I do. I’ve read some truly sensational GCSE English Literature essays on Shakespeare plays. But these are all, in my experience, exceptions to the rule. And that rule is that Shakespeare is rarely popular in GCSE English Literature circles.

And yet, in Ofqual’s recent announcement about reducing the GCSE English Literature syllabus for 2021, Shakespeare is the only element which isn’t up for debate. You can choose which module you want to ditch, so long as you don’t decide to bar the bard.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love teaching Shakespeare almost as much as I love chocolate, but even I can see that there is a strong argument for binning off Bill Wagglestaff. Here are a few of the most resounding arguments:

He’s already been done – twice

The National Curriculum requires that pupils study two Shakespeare plays at KS3. So, by the time students reach their GCSEs, they’ll already have a good knowledge of two of the bard’s creations. Is there any other author who has three of their works studied at school over five years? By losing the Shakespeare requirement at KS4, we’re not taking him out of the curriculum entirely, we’re just evening up the balance a little.

We can’t see him live

Admittedly, we can’t see Jane Austen or Charles Dickens live, either. But Shakespeare’s plays are meant to be performed, and a huge factor in teaching them is the ability to see them on stage. When I teach Shakespeare at GCSE, I move heaven and earth to get students to a live production, because it’s the magic of theatre which really sells it as a text. But with the current restrictions, theatres aren’t opening any time soon. We’ve lost a valuable teaching tool.

He’s yet another white, middle-class man

Admittedly, Shakespeare’s themes are universal. He teaches us about love, hatred, fear, prejudice, loss, war… the list is endless. But while his subjects are wide and varied, there is no arguing with the fact that he himself belongs to the most privileged group of humans on earth: the white, middle-class male. This is a group which also dominates poetry, contemporary poetry, modern plays and 19th century novels, but at least those areas offer some diversity of gender and cultural experience. As teachers, we are becoming increasingly aware that students are enthused and engaged by the role-models we expose them to. We need to make sure their experiences are as diverse as they can be.

We need to ditch intellectual snobbery

Shakespeare’s writing is wonderful. In my opinion, his work is the closest we get to the sublime. But I understand and accept that not everyone agrees with my view. And to enforce one man’s work on everyone as the pinnacle of cultural and aesthetic greatness is surely wrong. There is a cult of intellectual snobbery about Shakespeare which contributes to his lack of popularity in the classroom. Let’s not mystify the man by making him untouchable.

So that’s it: my arguments for putting Shakespeare on the list of modules which could be axed from GCSE English Literature 2021. Let’s be clear: I am not advocating that Shakespeare is completely removed from the secondary curriculum; nor am I suggesting that he should be permanently removed from the GCSE syllabus. I’m just saying that I don’t think we’ll be consigning 2021 students to the sulphurous pit if they don’t study him.

Read our previous blog on the GCSE English syllabus 2021 here and don’t forget to subscribe to Beyond for access to thousands of secondary teaching resources. You can sign up for a free account here and take a look around at our free resources before you subscribe too.

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