On one level, maybe it doesn’t matter if a few schoolchildren haven’t heard of Shakespeare. It should be perfectly possible to have a well-rounded education without coming across his works. But, in England, it’s unlikely.
The reason the results of LAMDA’s survey are so shocking is that they come against the wider backdrop of the controversial introduction of the English Baccalaureate and the linked perception that the government is sidelining the arts in the education system. Shakespeare is the only named playwright to be a compulsory part of the English curriculum (at key stages 3 and 4). If pupils are unaware of him, it speaks of a wider lack of awareness about drama, English literature and the arts as a whole.
The EBacc’s supporters, including schools minister Nick Gibb, have long argued that the new curriculum would reintroduce rigour to our state education. One would suspect that awareness of our greatest classical writer would have been precisely the kind of thing they had in mind: even on their own criteria, the EBacc does not appear to be working.
Back in 2016, Gibb branded claims the arts were being sidelined in schools as “illusory” and added that EBacc left “ample room for other choices”. But this research shows that nearly a third of schoolchildren do not have the choice of drama at GCSE or A level. Gibb also said: “It is worth considering that opportunities to participate in the arts, unlike any other subjects, can exist outside the formal school curriculum. Pupils appear in school plays, sing in choirs and play in orchestras even if they choose not to study a GCSE in music or drama.”
Well, that doesn’t appear to be happening much either. Indeed, the most worrying figures revealed by this week’s research are that 65% of schoolchildren attending state schools have not taken part in a school play and nearly half have never seen a play as part of a school trip.
Both these figures are considerably worse than for their peers at independent schools: there is already a significant class gap in the arts and this will only make it worse.
This is not the first piece of evidence that supports claims that the arts are being sidelined: the Association of School and College Leaders has warned that A-level drama is under threat of extinction and GCSE drama uptake is also steadily falling. At a time when places at the UK’s independent schools are in demand from around the world due to the balanced and well-rounded education they offer, it seems contrary to all logic that our government should insist on narrowing the offering within the state sector.