Ofqual’s decision to make GCSE poetry optional in 2021 has sparked mixed opinions, with the current Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, and other writers deeming it “a dangerous first step” in undermining the importance of the arts.
Ofqual’s justification for their decision is that it will prevent students having to study complicated poems remotely. However, at a time of much negative comparison between the arts and STEM subjects, it is possible that the decision is not solely motivated by concern for student wellbeing; especially since the class of 2021 have already spent a year preparing to sit an exam on poetry, meaning they do have an understanding of the texts. The decision also does little to consider the needs of analytically-inclined students: is studying poetry remotely really more challenging than A Christmas Carol or even trigonometry or osmosis? In The Guardian, Armitage suggested that poetry is “language at play” at a time when our world is largely data-driven and numerical.
People have also been quick to defend poetry in wider society. In times as strange as these, not only does it provide a form of escapism but the shorter, in-depth focus of a poem allows for the study of many topics across one module. This means that it allows students to engage with many cultures and voices, using these as a way of questioning our own.
Not only is it misleading to imply that Shakespeare, 19th-Century novels and post-1914 British fiction are easier to study than poetry but, in pitching poetry against other modes of literature, we risk perpetuating a eurocentric curriculum. If 2020 has proved anything, it is the need for understanding between cultures. We should surely question what we teach children about our history, and take this curriculum change as a chance to encourage an engagement with the cultural potential of poetry.
To treat this change as a disaster is to underestimate young people. Since turbulent societies often turn to the arts for comfort, we may see the appeal of poetry increase beyond classrooms (especially with the pressures of examination alleviated). In a society that under-appreciates the arts, we must ensure that this decision remains only a “dangerous first step”, at the same time using it as an opportunity to explore “language at play” in different – and new – ways.