A melancholy, evocative poem by a teenage Syrian refugee has put English education under the microscope, accused of ignoring creativity and imagination and rewarding mechanical memorisation and a dry regurgitation of the classics.
On Thursday writer and teacher Kate Clanchy, who uses her Twitter feed mostly to post her students’ poetry, shared ‘The Doves of Damascus’ by 14-year-old Ftoun.
The poem described fading memories of the beauty of Damascus, its sights and sensations, and hinted at the flight of refugees from its war and violence.
It was widely shared and attracted praise from some of Britain’s most famous authors.
“Ftoun worked and worked, but only got 4 in her English GCSE,” Clanchy wrote.
The GCSE is an exam that students need to graduate from high school, as a precursor to university entrance level tests. In the GCSEs a 4 is the equivalent of the old C grade – barely a pass.
“She came here from Syria in 2016. Marks for her poem below please.”
Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials, replied: “This kind of talent is unmeasurable, so naturally the system tries to measure it, and always fails”.
Clanchy responded to Pullman: “And wounds people as it does so. I hate GCSE. Why can’t we have one leaving exam at 18, like every other civilised country. Ftoun just needs a little more time.”
Compulsory GCSE at 16 was “stupid and awful”, she said. “Once you have failed it is so much harder to learn”.
Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat, said she had read out Ftoun’s poem as part of a keynote speech about the future of writing and the writers’ community “to which she undoubtedly belongs, Grade 4 or no”.
Last year Clanchy published a poetry anthology England: Poems from a School, from her time as a writer in residence at the Oxford Spires Academy, the university town’s chosen school for migrants where more than 30 languages are spoken.
This kind of talent is unmeasurable, so naturally the system tries to measure it, and always fails.
— Philip Pullman (@PhilipPullman) August 22, 2019
Its students have won national poetry competitions with work that documents their experience and observations from their English lives.
Clanchy told The Times newspaper the new GSCE curriculum was “the last straw in a bundle of shallow thinking… overdetermined syllabuses and bullying of teachers which has been getting heavier for a long long time”.
The Association of School and College Leaders this month called the current English curriculum “joyless”.
Under the influence of conservative minister Michael Gove it moved towards a heavy focus on analysis of classic historic texts, while English literature switched to closed-book exams that rewarded students for memorising swathes of quotations.
One assistant headteacher was quoted saying the school-leaver English exams were “sucking the joy out of the study of how we communicate: the power and beauty in words. English literature favours those with excellent memories; it has reduced our most magnificent pieces of writing to a collection of quotations”.
And there were reports that the reformed exams, introduced in September 2015, were behind a big decline in the number of pupils taking the subject at university entrance level.
This is Ftoun’s poem:
I lost my country and everything I had before.
I cannot remember for sure
The soft of the snow in my country,
I cannot remember
The feel of the damp air in summer.
Sometimes I think I remember
The smell of jasmine
As I walked down the street.
And sometimes autumn
With its orange and scarlet leaves
Flying in the high Damascus sky.
And I am sure I remember
My grandmother’s roof-garden,
Its vines, its sweet red grapes,
The mint she grew in crates for tea.
I remember the birds, the doves
Of Damascus. I remember
How they scattered. I remember
Trying to catch them.
The opinions expressed in this article reflect the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Observatory.