The Government’s announcement last week that it was going to relax compulsory testing of poetry in 2021’s English Literature GCSEs hit a nerve and produced a passionate response.
Whether it is Stop the Clocks by W. H. Auden at a funeral, Laurence Binyon’s For the Fallen on the Cenotaph memorial or a Shakespeare sonnet at a wedding, the concise intensity of poetry means that it is integral to how we deal with emotional moments.
The past five months have been a time of unprecedented emotional pressure. So it is no surprise that young people have been turning to poetry – our latest research shows that 21% of them are writing more poetry during lockdown. Our broader research has shown how this is connected to the power of writing to support wellbeing and help young people feel better. For a generation whose education, friendships and communities have experienced untold disruption, now is not the moment to be limiting access to poetry.
Poetry is profoundly and shockingly democratic. For example, the National Literacy Trust’s work in prisons has shown us how important poetry is to those in prisons and young offender institutions. Our research has also consistently shown us that children on free school meals are more likely to spend their free time reading and writing poetry than their better off peers (55.7% vs 43%). So this announcement isn’t based on the needs of those suffering most at this moment.
We also know that for many young people it is the key to engaging them in reading and writing – the foundation of literacy. The National Literacy Trust’s Young City Poets programme has helped thousands of young people to see themselves as readers and writers for the first time. Feedback like "working with the poet... she gave me words" demonstrates more clearly than any statistics how poetry is uniquely placed to help young people find their voices.
The pressures that teachers are facing are extraordinary. In most communities they have been the heroes of lockdown. The Department for Education’s reaction to remove assessment restrictions and increasing teachers’ ability to decide what is essential to the education of their children at this moment is absolutely the right response.
Even if this means that the assessment of poetry is temporarily suspended, I know that for many teachers this would not include limiting access to poetry. It is a form that lends itself well to teaching critical analysis skills in bitesize chunks, demands empathy from readers and encourages children to play with language to create connections they would never have made before. More importantly, teachers know poetry quite simply makes a lot of children happy.
In response to widespread school closures as a result of COVID-19, the National Literacy Trust launched Poetry Academy, which features writing tutorials for all ages from top poets. Find out more.
National Poetry Day is coming up on Thursday 1 October. Find out more about how you can join the celebrations.