Poetry at risk at GCSE

Poet Anthony Anaxagorou leads a workshop with London GCSE students. Photo: Cesare de Giglio for The Poetry Society

Poetry will become optional at GCSE next year, the exam regulator Ofqual announced today.

This temporary measure has been introduced because of the Covid pandemic, after schools had expressed concerns about their abilities to cover the full range of subject areas within the GCSE English Literature curriculum.

All students will still have to write about a Shakespeare play, but in 2020-21 they will be able to select two out of the three remaining content areas: poetry, the 19th Century novel and post-1914 British fiction and drama.

Speaking to the BBC, Poetry Society Director Judith Palmer said:

“We’re very sympathetic to the challenges teachers and young people face, trying to catchiup in the grip of so much Covid disruption – but don’t scrimp on the poetry!

It’s important to recognise that poetry provides a lot of the diversity in the GCSE English curriculum. This is where students encounter the voices of writers of colour like John Agard and Imtiaz Dharker, Raymond Antrobus and Zaffar Kunial. The GCSE poetry anthologies have been kept updated to include poems that have only recently been written, and that speak directly to young people’s lived experience. The Edexcel exam board, for example, encourages GCSE students to examine a theme like ‘belonging’ comparing poems by Wordsworth or John Clare, with the brilliant young British-Zambian poet, Kayo Chingonyi. All the research that we do with young people, comes back showing that they are desperate to read more diverse writers, and that this increases and widens engagement.

In these Covid times, poetry has never been more relevant​. Many students will be returning to the classroom processing trauma, and the study of poetry opens up a space for discussion of challenging subjects such as loss and isolation. All our usual certainties have recently been washed away. Poetry is all about uncertainty. It doesn’t give answers, it poses questions, and helps students understand that life may involve learning to live with complexities.”

“Poetry has not been dropped from the GCSE curriculum,” says Palmer, “Ofqual is suggesting it becomes optional for a limited time. The Poetry Society will be actively making the case for why, if having to choose, poetry should always be the essential option which students shouldn’t go without.”

Read more on Ofqual’s decision

The Poetry Society is conducting a survey asking members of the public to share their responses to Ofqual’s decision. Have your say here.

4 August 2020