Yvette Huddleston: Literature is slowly being stripped of its capacity to delight

A lot of joy has been taken out of the study of arts subjects over recent years.

Former Childrens Laureate Michael Rosen has written about his dismay at the way poetry was being taught in schools. (JPIMedia)
Former Childrens Laureate Michael Rosen has written about his dismay at the way poetry was being taught in schools. (JPIMedia)

Successive secretaries of state for Education – starting with ‘the Great Reformer’ Michael Gove and continuing to the present day – have, through constant testing, sought to make our children’s schooldays as miserable as possible.

Severe cuts in funding have meant that access to the enriching exploration of drama, visual art and music are being denied to many children, making it an unlevel playing field; only those from middle-class homes with parents who can afford to pay for classes are reaping the benefits. As if that weren’t bad enough, literature – which is, as yet, still on the curriculum – is being slowly stripped of its capacity to delight through the enforcement of unimaginative teaching methods.

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In an opinion piece in the Guardian last week the poet, novelist and former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen wrote about his dismay at the way poetry was being taught in schools. His article was titled ‘Dear Damian Hinds, please stop wrecking poetry for children’. He went on to describe how, due to the results-driven approach to learning as advocated by the current government, teachers are “being forced to sideline, neglect or reject ways of exploring poetry as something that has ambiguity and several possible meanings. It’s forcing children to think of poetry as a set of difficult problems, each of which has one right answer.”

One of the most exciting aspects of poetry is that it is open to interpretation. Allowing children to have diverse responses is a life lesson in itself. Good poetry can prompt us to question and often make us see things in another way, help us to understand things about ourselves and the world around us.

A lot of poetry was, and is, written to be performed and reading it out loud – either individually or, less scarily, as a group – can be fun for children. And, of course, they should be encouraged to write their own poetry – as a form of artistic expression it is fluid and flexible – but again, opportunities to do that appear to be diminishing. Creative writing seems to have all but disappeared from the curriculum. I remember writing ‘stories’ at school at all stages, from primary right through to A level English.

We are in the middle of an unprecedented mental health crisis among the young. Many complex factors may be involved but surely constantly being tested, judged and examined – from the earliest stages of education – must be a major cause of the high levels of anxiety and depression.

Research has shown that all forms of engagement with the arts have a positive effect on our wellbeing. Reading for pleasure – whether that is poetry, novels or short fiction – is one of the easiest to access, let’s not deny that pleasure by making it into a chore.