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Friday, 7 February, 2003, 11:20 GMT
Shakespeare exam 'dumbed down'
Scene from Hamlet
Alas poor syllabus?
Pupils will be able to gain more than half marks in a new test on Shakespeare without having to read any of his plays.

The national curriculum paper for 14 year olds, which previously involved a single 75-minute essay question, has been split into two.

A section worth 20 marks will now assess writing skills, loosely based on a play but not requiring a reading.

A second section, with 18 marks available, will concentrate on "reading and understanding" a text.

Impoverished for life

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), which sets the national curriculum, has been criticised for "dumbing down" the study of literature.

Nick Seaton, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, said: "It's typical of the state educational establishment to move away from knowledge towards skills.

"It's part of a move to improve national curriculum test results and is a very backward step."

The government has set a target of 75% of 14 year olds reaching the expected level in English by 2004.

Mr Seaton added: "The whole point of the Shakespeare test is that children gain some knowledge of our literary heritage.

"People often come out with little quotes from Shakespeare and if children don't know where these come from they are impoverished for life."

The QCA states that, for the first section, pupils must be "only assessed for writing - not for understanding of the play".

In one sample test, pupils are asked to write a piece on "People We Admire".

The reason given is that Henry V, one of Shakespeare's best-known characters, is himself seen as admirable. But no further reference is made to the play.

Retrograde step

Robert Carstairs, assistant general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "Most of our members would see this as a retrograde step.

"If you are trying to teach Shakespeare, it is the play that's most important.

"More emphasis should be on studying the work than skirting around the edges of it."

Shakespeare is one of three English papers set for 14 year olds this year.

Schools select one play from Henry V, Macbeth or Twelfth Night.

The QCA recommended last year that the Shakespeare examination should be reduced to 45 minutes.

But this plan was vetoed by Estelle Morris, Education Secretary at the time.

The QCA has defended the latest changes, claiming they will allow examiners better to test children's reading and writing skills, as they are focused on in separate parts of the Shakespeare paper.

A spokeswoman said: "The new test has been extensively trialled, ensuring it is a rigorous and demanding assessment of 14 year olds' understanding of Shakespeare.

"The writing element of the test enhances students' enjoyment and understanding of the key themes of the plays."

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