Shelley said “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”, but politicians may be more powerful after the education secretary attacked the removal of poems by Philip Larkin and Wilfred Owen from a GCSE course as “cultural vandalism” and called for their reinstatement.
Nadhim Zahawi denounced a decision by the OCR examination board to replace two works by Larkin and Owen from next year with a more diverse range of authors, to be studied as part of its GCSE English literature course.
“Larkin and Owen are two of our finest poets. Removing their work from the curriculum is cultural vandalism,” Zahawi said on social media. Their work must be passed on to future generations – as it was to me. I will be speaking to the exam board to make this clear.”
Zahawi added: “As a teenager improving my grasp of the English language, Larkin’s poems taught me so much about my new home. We must not deny future students the chance to make a similarly powerful connection with a great British author, or miss out on the joy of knowing his work.”
OCR – part of Cambridge University Press & Assessment – said it was revising the lineup of poets examined to “replace some Victorian and 20th-century poems which have either become overfamiliar through the assessment process, or which have proved to have unexpected difficulties or seemed less accessible for students.”
The Larkin poem An Arundel Tomb will no longer be included in the “love and relationships” section of the GSCE anthology, while Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth will disappear from the “conflict” section. Poems by William Wordsworth, Lord Byron and Emily Dickinson will remain. The anthology was first compiled in 2015.
The new authors include the British-Jamaican poet Raymond Antrobus and the Ukrainian poet Ilya Kaminsky, whose poem We Lived Happily During the War is included in the conflict theme. Kaminsky has recently published a collection of reports from poets whose homes have been occupied or attacked by Russian forces during its invasion of Ukraine.
Zahawi has previously recounted how he arrived in the UK with a poor grasp of English after his family fled Iraq as refugees in the late 1970s.
In a recent interview he said: “I couldn’t make any sense of the Telegraph because my English wasn’t good enough. But I started reading the Sun and it actually helped me improve my reading.” He later graduated from Imperial College London with a degree in chemical engineering.
OCR said 15 new poems were included, 30 retained and 15 removed from the previous anthology.
“Our anthology for GCSE English literature students will feature many poets that have never been on a GCSE syllabus before and represent diverse voices, from living poets of British-Somali, British-Guyanese and Ukrainian heritage,” OCR said in its announcement.
“Of the 15 poets whose work has been added to GCSE English literature, 14 are poets of colour. Six are Black women, one is of south Asian heritage. Our new poets also include disabled and LGBTQ+ voices.”
Judith Palmer, the chief executive of the Poetry Society, said: “It’s fantastic to see this new selection of poems from OCR including poets from such a range of backgrounds and identities, writing in such diverse forms, voices and styles.
“We are sure young people will welcome the opportunity to study poems by some of the most striking new voices in contemporary poetry, alongside a refreshing selection of classic texts from diverse authors. These poems will speak powerfully to the experiences of young people today.”
Earlier, Zahawi described teaching unions’ threats of industrial action over pay as “irresponsible”.
“Our young people have suffered more disruption than any generation that’s gone before them, and to compound that now, as recovery is in full swing and families are thinking about their next big step following school or college, would be unforgivable and unfair,” Zahawi wrote in the Telegraph.