Shakespeare is the only prescribed author in the UK schools’ National Curriculum but not everyone thinks compulsory Shakespeare is a good idea, least of all teachers. Before the launch of the National Curriculum in 1988 examining boards advised teachers to steer low achieving students away from Shakespeare and in 1993, after he became required reading, five hundred academics signed a letter to the Times Educational Supplement saying, ‘We are all committed to the study of Shakespeare; but to make such study compulsory for 14 year olds […] is to risk permanently alienating a large number of children from the pleasurable understanding of classical literary works.
Knowledge of Shakespeare constitutes what Pierre Bourdieu called ‘cultural capital’, part of the built-in advantage which children from educated, middle class families have over those from less privileged homes. Education is a key enabler for social mobility and including cultural education as well as practical learning in the National Curriculum is intended to level the playing field and help give every child a fair start in life. But the National Curriculum is not as national as it sounds and it hasn’t had the impact politicians hoped for. Scotland was always exempt, as are academies and independent schools in England and Wales, free schools will be and Shakespeare is not required for either the English Baccalaureate nor IGCSEs.
And for every person who discovered a love of Shakespeare in school someone else was turned off him. Helen Mirren doesn’t think students should have to read Shakespeare in school, ‘Honestly, I don’t think kids should be made to read Shakespeare at all. I think children’s first experience of Shakespeare should always be in performance in the theatre or in film – mostly in theatre, but it should be a performance because that makes it alive and real.’ But theatre attendance is heavily skewed by class, ethnicity and region so if you wait for young people to discover Shakespeare in the theatre then the most socially deprived never will and you’re in danger of reinforcing rather than breaking down social inequality. Mirren also seems to have forgotten about her own English teacher whom she had previously credited with introducing her to Shakespeare. Patrick Stewart was another clever, working class child who owes his love of Shakespeare, and subsequent career, to an inspiring English teacher rather than a theatre visit, ‘It was the first time I ever held a copy of Shakespeare in my hand and it was certainly the first time I ever had Shakespeare’s words in my mouth. That’s when it happened for me.’
When the RSC launched its Stand Up For Shakespeare campaign the then director of learning, Maria Evans, said boring lessons were putting students off Shakespeare for life. The Government is currently reviewing the National Curriculum so do we need to teach him better, make him optional so teachers can decide when and if he’s right for their students, or should we think the unthinkable and drop him altogether?