London, April 23: His work, he once said, would live “so long as men can breathe, or eyes can see” ' but 14-year-olds sitting for the English test next month in Britain can now score zero on the Shakespeare section and still achieve a pass.
As a result, experts fear that William Shakespeare, who is believed to have been born 442 years ago today, and whose plays have been central to the study of English literature for generations, is in danger of being eased out of the curriculum.
Changes made to the examination last year mean that, despite the boast of Sonnet 18, the Shakespeare paper ' one of three taken by 600,000 14-year-olds in the UK ' now barely counts in the overall result.
It is worth only 18 out of a possible 100 marks. Prior to the changes, questions on the Bard were worth 38 marks in the English test.
As long as pupils gain around half marks in the other two papers, which assess reading and writing, they will reach the pass mark and be awarded a level five, the standard expected of their age group.
A breakdown of statistics from last year’s test, obtained by The Daily Telegraph, shows that teenagers scored an average of just six marks out of 18 in the Shakespeare paper.
Despite this, 74 per cent reached level five or above. Dismal scores were endemic even though pupils are told a year in advance exactly which scene they will be questioned on.
The figures were greeted with dismay last night by Michael Boyd, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), which last week launched its year-long complete works festival that will see all 37 of the Bard’s plays performed on stage.
“We don’t want Shakespeare to be downgraded to a token presence on the paper,” he said. “The idea that children can understand Shakespeare just by learning one scene is doomed to fail. Pupils need to tackle the entire play if they are to understand and enjoy what is going on.”
The RSC is so concerned about the sidelining of the Bard in British schools that it is launching a year-long inquiry into the teaching of Shakespeare.
“We need more performance-based teaching in classrooms,” said Boyd. “Shakespeare was a playwright who collaborated and interacted with people. Children get to grips with a play if they get a chance to perform it and get the language on their tongues.”
The UK curriculum stipulates that secondary school pupils must study at least two Shakespeare plays, but the amount of time spent teaching them is left to teachers’ discretion.
In a review of English teaching last year, inspectors criticised staff for using short extracts from key works of literature. Only 4 per cent of secondary schools said they went through entire books in English lessons, while more than half admitted to teaching bite-sized sections rather than whole works.