Tragedy of Shakespearean Proportions

As you all know, I currently live in the UK, the land of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, the Brontës, and other literary luminaries too numerous to name.  During my time here I’ve been forming the opinion that the primary school educational system in England leaves quite a lot to be desired.  First, the entire system is geared toward the final exams. These exams are taken at the end of each school year and are standardized.  During a student’s last year they take their A-Level exams and the results are all published on a set day and that is also the day you find out if the universities you’ve applied to will accept you.  This system is very confusing and I still don’t understand it, but I’ll try to explain the very strange university application process in another blog. So, these tests are a big deal.  And this system has been touted as a model for the American public schools and this is where I get angry.  I understand that there is a perceived need to evaluate schools nationally and the most efficient way to do this is a nationalized test of achievement.  The problem is the shortsightedness of such a proposed “solution.” (I’m going to ignore the bigger issue of federal control of schools right now because that’s a bit beside the point for this story; it is sufficient to say I am not a fan of federal fingers in schools.)  Back to the testing issue.  We’ve all heard about teachers “teaching for the test” and the impact that has on the classroom and learning experience.  Basically, creativity gets thrown out the window because it’s inefficient.  Students are all funneled into one educational direction – reducing opportunities for them to pursue their own interests.  Curriculum becomes dry and boring.  Curiosity is dampened, if not destroyed.  These are the very real effects of nationalized educational standards and testing.  But, that is not the end of the road.  No.  It gets worse.  And I found clear evidence of that here.

I was reading the Guardian the other day and came across an article outlining the very real effects of some legislative changes to national curriculum.  One of the tests has been scrapped because it was seen, and rightly so, as ineffective.  The test that was scrapped was for Key Stage 3, a test generally taken in the English equivalent of 9th grade.  This was the test that contained Shakespeare.  The effect of scrapping this test has been that Shakespeare is no longer taught in many schools.  Many schools in ENGLAND.  Due to the tyranny teachers face from the nationalized tests they are refocussing their resources toward areas that are tested and since Shakespeare is no longer on the test, he’s no longer taught.  Additionally, since there really is no point in pursuing anything related to Shakespeare, schools are canceling school trips to see the Bard’s plays performed, forcing small theatre companies across the nation to put “Shakespeare on the back burner.”  The article quotes one playhouse manager as saying “As soon as the government made its announcement, schools began to cancel.  We went from 375 bookings to just 14.”  So what are all these Shakespearean actors doing now?  One playhouse is now it talks with the National Health Service to see if they can put together some dramas to educate children about the dangers of obesity.  This is a tragedy.  England, if something drastic is not done, will have an entire generation of children who never saw the Bard’s work performed and in its place saw a didactic drama on the dangers of chips.  The danger of the test is not just the fact that teachers are forced to focus on tested material, it’s in all the things that are not on the test and are therefor sorely neglected.

About Rebecca

Hi! After five years in Europe, I'm adjusting to life back in the US. I use this blog to record my adventures, post photos, organize recipes, and post about things that interest me.
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2 Responses to Tragedy of Shakespearean Proportions

  1. Rea Berg says:

    Hi Becca–you’re so right, and how pervasive this mentality is! I have had a similar battle right here in little ol’ San Luis Obispo (at the academy) with keeping our literature approach to education true and text-book free. To throw out Shakespeare from the national curriculum of the UK is a real low . . . how sad. We’ll for those of us who love literature I suppose it does mean some sort of job security! There will always be folks who do want this stuff!
    Love you,

  2. Michael Gove says:


    Since the Key Stage 3 test was scrapped, there has been no nationalised testing in the UK at grade 9, or indeed in grade 10 (there are nationalised tests in grade 11). Teachers are free to be as creative as they wish to be in grade 9, free from any pressures to teach to any national tests.

    As you explain in your article, Shakespeare was taught in grade 9 because it had previously been included in the nationalised education standard. The nationalised education standard has been removed, so Shakespeare is no longer being taught in as many schools. This being the case, I would suggest your article is disingenuous. Either you’re in favour of nationalised tests in Grade 9 and Shakespeare being taught, or you’re in favour of no nationalised tests and no Shakespeare being taught.

    To blame nationalised education standards for what is taught in schools where no nationalised education standards exist seems to me to be a rather ambitious leap of logic.

    Kind regards

    Michael Gove

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