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March 21, 2010
Writing poetry has been shown time and time again to have positive effects on the thinking skills and creativity of children and teenagers. Recent changes to the Welsh and English system mean, however, that, in GCSE English, writing poetry has been sidelined and will not be part of students’ assessment.
This is apparently due to changes to assessment parameters made by the Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills (DCELLS) in the Welsh Assembly Government and The Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA) for England. The changes now mean that it is practically impossible to write poetry for the creative writing task in coursework.
The first problem is that under the new rubric, a limited amount of time is allowed, which makes it tricky for the writing of poetry. At university level, there are sometimes exams in which a poem has to be written in a couple of hours – e.g. The Practice of Poetry module at University of Warwick – but this kind of task does not seem suitable for school students. In general, students need more time to draft their poems and to think through the implications of their chosen forms and lexis. For school students, the writing of poetry needs to be a marathon not a sprint. The parameters then would have to be radically altered for writing poetry to be included.
The other problem is that there is a set length, a couple of thousand words, which obviously does not suit poetry as it is more condensed than prose. Again this could be sidestepped. At university level, where we are teaching modules that include the choice of writing poetry or fiction, we might ask for 100 lines of poetry or a 3000 word story. This would be a simple adjustment to make to the assessment guidelines.
What really strikes me, though, is how easily poetry has been relegated by these assessment guidelines. Of course, there will still be opportunities for students to write creatively elsewhere on the course, but to me, the omission of writing poetry from the assessment has extremely strong symbolic significance. Those teachers who are scared of poetry (they do exist!) will have an excuse now not to include it. Poetry is not thought to be important enough to become an indispensible part of the curriculum. We can only wonder why?
Is it that we are facing the same old snobbery, the belief that only an elite group of privileged students have the ability to write poetry? Having taught Creative Writing at the National Academy of Gifted and Talented Youth and at GOAL, a writing course for underprivileged kids, I know this to be false. What is more, poetry can be a wonderful discovery for less privileged students as a means of expression and a useful way to learn how to write about their lives with power and eloquence.
Or is it simply that the bureaucratic educational bodies have decided that poetry has little worth or usefulness in today’s society? It’s true I suppose that poetry does not always fit easily with mark schemes or pie graphs or utilitarian charts of students’ development, but poetry is and will always be – as an art between language and music – a fundamental way of expressing the heart and soul of a culture, especially in a place like Britain where literature, and poetry especially, have contributed to the construction and critique of the national character.
Overall, I lament the loss of writing poetry at GCSE. Its omission means not only that a generation of new British poets may never begin to write, and not only that the appreciation of poetry developed by writing in the form is diminished. I am especially concerned because this sidelining of poetry is a worrying sign that the British education system is slowly dismantling the role of poetry in British life and replacing the poetic with ‘clear objectives’ and ‘measurable outcomes’, the myopic bureaucracy that seems to blight so many British institutions.