Shakespeare Under The Coalition: An End to Shakespeare For All?
A paper given by Dr. Sarah Olive, The University of York at the ‘We need to talk about teaching conference’ in February 2013, at King’s College London.
Abstract: This paper considers the place of Shakespeare in the policy, speeches and press releases of the Coalition government, ahead of the release of the National Curriculum for English for secondary school level. It posits a contradiction between the pro-Shakespeare, cultural conservatism of key figures in the Department of Education with the diversification of the school system which could lead to the requirements for all students to study Shakespeare being disapplied, and thus, the end of ‘Shakespeare for all’ in reality if not rhetoric.
Although the nation still awaits the publication of the revised National Curriculum for English, timetabled for implementation in 2014, policy decisions taken and documents produced by the Conservative-Liberal coalition so far affirm Shakespeare’s continuing centrality to the subject. He has constantly been name-checked in speeches by the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove and other relevant ministers in relation to the curriculum and the educational experience it will deliver. Shakespeare is figured by Gove as a transformative force, as a magical ‘moment’ or ‘gift’ which teachers can provide that reflects glory on both students and teachers and represents a pinnacle among students’ learning. In his speech at the Conservative party conference in 2010, Gove asked his audience to imagine ‘the moment a pupil who says she’s never seen the point of books – or, for that matter, school – sits enraptured by a performance of Hamlet’ (All Pupils). Ostensibly, this incident, recalled from Gove’s own conversations with teachers and school visits, demonstrates the power of good teaching. The role which Shakespeare’s unmatched writing skills implicitly play in the students’ absorption, in crafting a play whose enactment intrigues her beyond that of any other text or educational experience, is also alluded to. Yet, this paper will argue, for all the government’s championing of Shakespeare, its meta-education policy looks set to jeopardise the provision of Shakespeare for all students.
Speaking to the National College for School Leadership, held in Birmingham during June 2011, Gove put Shakespeare’s works at the top of his list of great achievements, with which all children should be familiarised. He declared that ‘Shakespeare’s dramas, Milton’s verse, Newton’s breakthroughs, Curie’s discoveries, Leibniz’s genius, Turing’s innovation, Beethoven’s music, Turner’s painting, Macmillan’s choreography, Zuckerberg’s brilliance – all the rich achievements of human ingenuity belong to every child – and it should be our enduring mission to spread that inheritance as widely as possible’ (‘The moral purpose’). Shakespeare’s unique place in the National Curriculum, as established by the Thatcher government, is reinforced here in his being prioritised ahead of other significant artistic, musical and scientific prodigies.
There is no explicit acknowledgement that New Labour had maintained his place in the curriculum, only an upbraiding of the Blair and Brown leaderships for allowing standards around Shakespeare to slip. Gove is adamant that, under New Labour, Shakespeare was taught to the test and students’ engagement with the plays dumbed down. Speaking to The Spectator conference in June 2012, Gove argued that under New Labour ‘exam boards competed for custom on the basis that their exams were easier to pass than others. They got round the demand for rigour – for example, the requirement to include questions on Shakespeare’s dramas – by letting schools know which act and which lines would be examined, whole terms in advance of the papers being sat’ (‘How are the children?’). Any suggestion that Brown’s government might have identified flaws in the key stage 3 SATS themselves and acted to address this, leading to the discontinuation of SATS at this level in 2008, is ignored. That ‘teaching to the test’ was a criticism of the consequences of SATS during Major’s leadership also goes unmentioned. In this way, Gove is able to create a narrative of sliding educational standards and warped values under New Labour, in readiness for the sequel of Coalition as saviour. The Coalition, as pictured by Gove in contrast to New Labour, will rescue education not by abandoning testing but by improving the quality of assessment. While there is currently no overtly discernible drive to reinstate the compulsory key stage 3 Shakespeare SATs removed by Labour, Shakespeare was included in documents for the optional testing of students in year 9 posted on the DfE website in September 2012. These involve students working on a passage from Romeo and Juliet or As You Like It in a way that addresses areas of assessment such as ‘text in performance; character and motivation; language of the text; and ideas, themes and issues’ (‘Optional tests in English’). In the documents available so far, Gove and his colleagues figure their reforms to education as offering a high-quality experience of Shakespeare to all students as part of a reformed system of assessment (discussed in detail at the end of this section).
Access for all to an improved experience of Shakespeare promised by the Coalition has been depicted in successive speeches as representing a high point of inclusivity which involves ‘giving every child an equal share in the inheritance of achievement which great minds have passed on to us’ as part of ‘a great progressive cause’ (‘The moral purpose’). This is constructed particularly as an achievement of the academy schools, an initiative introduced by New Labour in 2000 but which the Coalition government has come to ‘own’ through rapid and large-scale expansion of the scheme. In a speech to Cambridge University on liberal education, Gove talked of his experience at one academy, Denbigh High, where ‘the students, overwhelmingly Asian, second and third generation immigrant families, competed to tell me why they preferred Shakespeare to Dickens’ (‘Cambridge University’). Similarly, the Schools Minister Nick Gibb told his audience at an event used to outline the government’s determination to raise expectations of children’s reading that at Thomas Jones Primary School in Ladbroke Grove ‘despite the fact almost two-thirds of the pupils do not have English as a first language, and more than half are on free school meals, the children are reading and enjoying Shakespeare’s sonnets’ (‘Greater expectations’). The policy message is clear: successful schools, exemplified by those which have reformed as academies, teach Shakespeare to all students regardless of racial, social or linguistic background, and their students enjoy it. These schools’ ability to teach Shakespeare is taken as a testament to the achievement of the academy system which the Coalition portrays itself as having championed.
Under Gove’s leadership of the Department for Education, additional pressure has been applied on schools to demonstrate a commitment to and facility with Shakespeare through international comparisons. In an appraisal of the teaching of national language and literature in high-performing jurisdictions globally, England’s requirement that all students study Shakespeare was shown to be unique yet comparable with Denmark’s prescription regarding the teaching of its literary heritage of fifteen Danish authors which all students must encounter at school (DfE ‘What we can learn’ 46). This is just one example in which English schools have been encouraged to be as good as, if not better than, their Scandinavian counterparts who are reified by the minister and those conducting the curriculum review as examples of excellence. Furthermore, on several occasions, teachers of English have been reminded that Poland, whose education system is but ‘fast improving’ ‘has high expectations in their [sic] recommended reading including Homer, Chekov and Shakespeare alongside great works of Polish literature’ (‘Summary Report’ 52). The message which Gove desires schools to extrapolate from these snapshots of other, exemplar countries – whom the audiences of these speeches are frequently reminded are our international competitors – is that if they privilege their national authors, or indeed ‘our’ national author in their teaching, so must the English education system.
The Coalition’s support for Shakespeare as a key figure in English, as well as drama and cultural education (a term which seems to have replaced New Labour’s preferred ‘arts education’) is evident in Gove’s acknowledgement of schemes based outside the school classroom, but which aim to improve experience of Shakespeare in schools. In a speech to the BETT show in January 2012, he referenced the University of Warwick and Royal Shakespeare Company’s Teaching Shakespeare centre, which aims to use the ‘rehearsal room’ –‘an online professional development learning platform to transform the teaching of Shakespeare in schools’ – and offers postgraduate qualifications I the field (Gove ‘BETT show’). The Department for Education also donated a hundred and forty thousand pounds to an educational charity, the Shakespeare Schools Festival, which helps schools stage scenes from Shakespeare in theatres nationwide to expand its programme almost three-fold, from 700 schools to 2000, to include more primary schools. The department’s support for Shakespeare was made additionally tangible by its giving a similar sum to the Royal Shakespeare Company to ‘provide all state secondary schools with a free copy of the RSC Shakespeare Toolkit for Teachers’, which includes lesson plans and active methods exercises for teaching Macbeth¸ Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Burns ‘Shakespeare schools cash’). Apart from making a financial investment in the teaching of Shakespeare, these acts also signal a departure from previous Conservative governments’ scepticism of the efficacy of practical methods for teaching Shakespeare. Indeed, it could be argued that these initiatives indicate a continuity of New Labour’s endorsement of active methods evident in the national strategy Shakespeare for all ages and stages: a document which was incorporated into the DfE’s web pages in 2012, having been archived after the change of government in 2010.
Current indications from instances of Shakespeare in Coalition policy so far are that Shakespeare continues to be a highly valued part of English education. There is no reluctance from the Coalition’s education ministers to espouse his greatness, whereas New Labour’s enthusiasm for Shakespeare arguably felt somewhat undercut by its recognition of his sometime reception as exclusive and elite. He is valued as a testament to the Coalition’s vision of what makes a good teacher; to the success of academies; to its agenda for inclusivity; and to the improvement of standards and performance in international comparisons. Moreover, at a time when discussion of funding cuts dominates the media, at least two Shakespeare organisations have received a boost to their funding from the government. Shakespeare’s value is also reinforced by policy on reforms to subject English more generally as well as the Coalition’s priorities for literary heritage and cultural education. The next section will examine these in detail. It will, however, also problematize Shakespeare’s place in Coalition meta-education policy, its agendas for skills, standards and inclusion, with particular reference to the possibility that the National Curriculum’s requirement to study Shakespeare could be increasingly disapplied.
Early indications from the Coalition government on its plans for subject English suggest that, at the very least, an atmosphere is being fostered in which compulsory Shakespeare would thrive. The draft National Curriculum for key stages 1 and 2 was released in Autumn 2012. Not surprisingly – given previous versions of the document and the age of students it applies to – Shakespeare is not named specifically in the document. In outlining the purpose of English, however, there is a focus on the role of literature in developing students ‘culturally, emotionally, spiritually and socially’ (1). It also articulates under a list of aims that the teaching of English should ‘ensure that all pupils…appreciate our rich and varied literary heritage’ (1). The Programmes of Study are split into writing (subdivided into transcription – e.g. spelling and handwriting – and composition) and reading: word reading and comprehension. The curriculum emphasises the co-dependence of the two skills, arguing that pupils’ enjoyment and understanding of language is essential to supporting their increasingly challenging reading (20). In this way it seeks to negate criticism that an increased attention to punctuation and grammar – among other elements of language learning – will relegate the importance of engaging with literary texts.
At secondary level, the piloting of English as one of three core subjects in the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) – a qualification designed to replace GCSEs and to signal the introduction of what Gove has claimed will be more rigourous assessments while attracting more students to study core academic subjects – marks it out as a gold standard subject, both in terms of status and content. Under the EBacc award students will be required to demonstrate additional facilities and overcome new levels of difficulty to succeed. They will now, for example, consistently and visibly be marked on the accuracy of spelling, punctuation, grammar and their use of specialist terms. This is in response, Gove argued in launching the National Curriculum Review, to universities’ and employers’ decreased trust in the accuracy of the GCSEs’ ability to accurately reflect students’ abilities, after successive years in which the number of A and A* grades awarded has risen (‘Twyford’). Indeed, Shakespeare, whose writing has consistently been figured as difficult since the late nineteenth-century – and used to determine the most able candidates through his place, for example, at the top of the Victorian Standards for reading (Murphy) – seems a likely author to be co-opted into the government’s aim to drive up the quality of assessments at this level.
Gove’s assertion that exam boards and English departments ‘tend to focus on the same texts year after year’ could be applied to the teaching of Shakespeare, since awarding bodies tend to select a group of plays for a number of years, refreshing the list periodically. However, in the context of his other criticisms: that ‘there is very little requirement to study writers from any period or genre’; that ‘as many students only read one novel for GCSE, the curriculum’s impression of wide-ranging study is misleading’; as well as his singling out of 90 per cent of schools teaching Of Mice and Men, instead suggests that it is an apparent over-reliance on a small group of modern novels which is being attacked (‘Twyford’).
Of Mice and Men’s downfall may also be its authorship by an American writer. While the authors of the primary curriculum and other documents which refer to the teaching of English literature, such as the Henley Review of Cultural Education, have stressed the importance of literary traditions from outside England, speeches by senior figures in the Department of Education overwhelmingly construct English as ‘the great tradition of our literature’ (‘All pupils’ my emphasis). Not only is great English literature apparently literally that coming out of England, but it is overwhelmingly nineteenth-century, white, male-authored: ‘Dryden, Pope, Swift, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Austen, Dickens and Hardy should be at the heart of school life’ (‘All pupils’). This is a list which makes Leavis’ great tradition, with its two female authors (Jane Austen and George Eliot), one immigrant to Britain (Joseph Conrad, born Józef Teodor Konrad Nalęcz Korzeniowski in Poland), and one American (Henry James) look progressive. Leavis’ favoured novelists in his canon, purveyors of a then increasingly popular form, where Gove has placed a large emphasis on poets, whose work a diminishing number of students and teachers engage with of their own volition (Xerri). It should also be noted that two of Leavis’ chosen authors wrote into the twentieth-century, only a few decades before his publication seized on them as exemplars of literary art. Gove’s authors have, on average, been dead for 206 years. If Thatcherite policy represented a new Victorianism, Gove’s vision for literary education idealises the long eighteenth century; equating education with (the) enlightenment.
The notion of a world-class English literary heritage constituted by such authors is to a great extent also represented within the Henley Review by paragraphs outlining the internationally-reputed nature of the nation’s ‘creative output’ which is ‘disproportionately large for a country of our relatively small size’ (16). While it recognises the value of newer works this is overwhelmingly presented in relation to literary heritage: ‘By reading and learning about the works of the great authors, poets and playwrights of the past, we can understand the development of literature and drama in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and the place of brand new works as part of the continuous reinvention of these genres’ (19). A few sentences further down this is reiterated as ‘Any rounded Cultural Education should have space to include newer art-forms, which have yet to pass the test of time, alongside the very best creativity from times gone by’ (19). The document conveys a feeling that Henley was impelled to constantly yoke past and present art together to succeed in having his push for the place of contemporary work accepted by the Coalition government; sweetening the bitter pill of modernity with a coating of the more familiar and therefore palatable.
The necessity of doing so might have been suggested to Henley by Gove’s cutting comments about popular cultural in a speech to Cambridge University on liberal education. He unfavourably compared William Gladstone’s penchant for talking Shakespeare, Virgil and Dryden with labourers and miners to Tony Blair’s references in the House of Commons to the soap opera Coronation Street. He then proceeded to criticise Gordon Brown’s declaration to the public that he is a fan of the Sheffield indie-rock band, the Arctic Monkeys: ‘It would have been inconceivable for any member of [Gladstone’s] Cabinet to have sought public approbation by letting the world know they had the critical tastes of a teenager’ (‘Cambridge University’). For Gove, it would seem, to admit to a knowledge, let alone enjoyment, of popular culture, or advocate that it has a role in public life and education, is to confess to ignorance, childishness and general bad taste. Awareness of Gove’s attitudes to popular culture, what he is likely to accept or dismiss, may explain the Henley Review’s overall cultural conservatism.
Beyond the equation of classic texts with quality, with an Arnoldian notion of ‘the best that has been thought and said’, a case is also made in the Henley review for the importance of historical literature in stretching students’ empathetic and imaginative abilities, taking them out of their comfort zones. By sixteen, the review states, children should ‘read a broad range of books both by living authors and by authors who may no longer be alive, but whose books are regarded as literary classics. Some of these books might be about subjects that are directly relevant to the readers’ lives today, but young people should also be reading books that expand horizons and show them the possibilities in the world beyond their own direct experiences’ (26). This latter phrase is particularly redolent of arguments for the extension of literacy to the working classes from the late eighteenth-century on: that reading literature represents the extension of vicarious experiences to this group, from which they are currently excluded but to which they should aspire to attain and which they may even achieve through self-education (Mulhern). The Henley Review therefore pushes but gently at the boundaries of what the Coalition government and, in particular, Conservative ideology, might accept as culture. Its emphasis on the importance of the old, the past, and the classic, strongly makes the case for the place of figures such as Shakespeare in education within and beyond the English classroom. In doing so, it coheres with the Coalition government’s highlighting of the importance of, a rather nationalistic version of, history, as a subject in its own right, and in society more widely e.g. through events and funding to commemorate the start of the Great War in 2014. Yet the review does occasionally challenge the government – sounding the warning that the exclusion of cultural subjects from the EBacc, beyond English and history, and hence denying these subjects their own National Curriculum, may lead to them being neglected by students, teachers and parents as inferior. The knock-on consequence, Henley argues, will be a shrinking of the range and quality of Britain’s cultural industries, their products and services. Were Henley’s ideas on the importance of writing comparable statutory programmes of study for areas of endeavour such as drama, theatre studies, design, dance, music and heritage, taken up, Shakespeare’s place in the National Curriculum might be proliferated beyond that of a literary figure. He might appear across the school curriculum in a way that recognises him as a source for theatrical, filmic and televisual performance; balletic and operatic adaptation; and the tourism industry.
The Henley Review is also a useful starting place for exploring the way in which meta-education policy, in addition to micro policy on the English Curriculum and literary heritage, appears conducive to maintaining Shakespeare’s unique position. The review places a heavy emphasis on improving standards in cultural education through partnerships between schools and other institutions. It advocates for the creation by Ofsted of ‘a guide to working with schools for cultural institutions’ (46), for teachers to be encourage to connect to cultural industries through continuing professional development and by using their own talents as practitioners to perform (47). Building upon models such as Creative Partnerships instituted under New Labour as part of its agenda, discussed previously, the review fosters a climate where the provision of Shakespeare to students could be delivered jointly by schools, theatres and heritage sites. The government has supported such partnerships through funding the Shakespeare School Festival and RSC initiatives. Additionally, the generous amount of air-time given to the need to raise standards of teacher recruitment; teacher training; vocational education; and academic qualifications in all subjects creates an atmosphere receptive to compulsory Shakespeare whose place at the pinnacle of educational achievement in the Victorian standards and continuing popular construction as a ‘difficult’ author to study still confers a sense of cachet on any curriculum, programme of study or assessment. Furthermore, when inclusion remains a key agenda for the Coalition government – with their emphasis on raising up ‘children from poorer families’, on schools as ‘engines of social mobility’ for poor children, rather than those disadvantaged by race or any other factor – to withdraw access to Shakespeare for all would be counter-intuitive (‘The Importance of Teaching’ 6).
The circularity in policy identified by researchers such as Geoff Whitty and Richard Pring between the Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s and New Labour has similarly typified the transition to the Coalition government. This is despite the Coalition theoretically breaking the two-party politics mould and Gove’s publicising his department’s hyperactivism: his promises to go ‘further, faster’ and to set a ‘radical’ ‘pace’ for school reform (‘Twyford’). Giles Coren incisively caricatures the overwhelming maintenance of the status quo in writing about continuing reform to school meals, initiated under New Labour: ‘Gove comes in to the DfE, broadly endorses strategy of Blair Government in general and Lord Adonis [the Conservative Peer and architect of City Academies] in particular, presses on with the Academification of the comprehensives (as well as greenlighting the more controversial Free Schools programme), putting power and money in the hands of head teachers as opposed to local authorities’ (‘Carshalton Boys Sports College’).
There is, however, one substantial area of Coalition meta-policy which may, in practice, undermine compulsory Shakespeare for all school children: the continued proliferation of a multi-partite school system. The Coalition has been vociferous in identifying the burgeoning number of academies, free schools, studio schools and university technical colleges as one of their success stories in improving education nationally. Academies are designed to enable low-performing schools to rebrand, to break entrenched failure through autonomy from local authorities and freedom to seek personal or corporate sponsorship. Free schools operate similarly but are schools newly established with the express aim of filling an identified gap in educational provision in a community. Studio schools offer part-academic, part-vocational education in collaboration with local and national employers, with the intention of closing the gap between knowledge and skills. Meanwhile university technical colleges each specialise in a technical area such as engineering, manufacturing or biomedical science, requiring highly specialised equipment. Access to this is enabled through sponsorship from a university and partnerships with industry. What unites all four is that, while they teach the National Curriculum to varying extents, there are circumstances in which they may depart from it. While, as a bare minimum core, GCSEs such as English and maths are currently taught in university technical colleges alongside technical qualifications, further differentiation of educational pathways could result in the disapplication of the requirement for all children to study Shakespeare. Such a scenario would allow the government to maintain the promise of a liberal education, including literature and culture, for all students while extending to some a utilitarian education designed to boost economic productivity. Furthermore, it would enable the Coalition to maintain the ideal of Shakespeare for all in policy, while allowing for a rather different reality in practice.
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Other papers from the event can be accessed at http://www.kcl.ac.uk/sspp/departments/education/news/events/teachingsym.aspx