I have a feeling that, like me, many Evergreen readers will remember reciting times tables during their early schooldays. In my era the familiar "three Rs" were also accompanied by weekly spelling tests and handwriting lessons (using proper fountain pens). Our English classes involved creative writing (poetry and prose), grammar, punctuation, exercises in comprehension, précising and discovering classic and popular poetry ranging from William Wordsworth ("I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud") to Lewis Carroll ("Jabberwocky"), and Hilaire Belloc ("Cautionary Tales for Children") to T. S. Eliot ("The Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats"). All this was at my village primary school long before the advent of the national curriculum or Ofsted inspectors!
This week it has been announced that primary school children will now be tested on times tables. It is a move that hasn't gone down well with some teachers and parents, while others are heartened by a return to more traditional methods of education. A similar story caught my eye in the papers a few weeks ago concerning GCSE English Literature students who are complaining that they are now expected to memorise classic poems for their exams. They describe it as a "struggle" and there is even an online petition calling for them to be permitted to take the texts into their exams.
Now I know that times have changed, but since when were exams meant to be anything other than challenging? I realise it's going back into the dim and distant past, but when we took our O- and A-Levels we weren't allowed to take any texts into the examination hall and coursework wasn't even considered when it came to the final exam results. Two years' studying often depended on one three-hour paper. Did we complain? No, we just accepted the rules, worked hard, committed the facts to memory and revised like mad. We knuckled down and got on with it! No internet petitions or outraged parents back then. If you did have to face the upset of a lower than anticipated grade or a failure, then yes, you were disappointed, but you learned that life didn't always go according to plan, so you tried again. It was a good lesson that not everything in life came easy.
For those who question the merit of learning poems off by heart, I would say it is a discipline that concentrates the mind brilliantly on the style, sentiment and rhythm of the words. Like the script of a play, you often have to hear the words spoken or performed to make them come to life and infuse the poetry with meaning. It enhances your understanding and appreciation. In addition, the ability to focus and recollect can be applied to numerous aspects of life and work. It is a valuable skill to learn, which carries you way beyond the classroom.
Poetry and childhood memories are both popular subjects in each quarterly issue of Evergreen (click here to order the spring issue, published on 7th March). Readers frequently write in to tell us of their love of learning poems at school. What is wonderful is that all these decades later those lines of treasured verse, which form such a vibrant chapter of Britain's rich literary heritage, are still remembered just as they were recited in the classroom all those years ago.