School poetry teaching too limited, Ofsted says

· Primaries choosing too many lightweight poems
· GCSE pupils put off by dull, technical approach

Children in England are studying too many lightweight poems in primary school while dull and repetitive teaching at GCSE is harming pupils' enjoyment of the genre, the education inspectorate, Ofsted, says today. Many teachers, especially of younger children, do not know enough about poetry, leading to a limited range of work by poets such as Spike Milligan, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear being taught.

Teaching for under-11s is short on classics and other cultures and traditions, in breach of national curriculum requirements, Ofsted's report says.

The chance for pupils to write poems dwindles sharply in the year before tests at 11 and 14 and often disappears when they start GCSE courses. The narrow choices are also poor preparation for A-level English.

The inspectors voice their criticisms, based on evidence from 86 schools, despite finding poetry teaching at least satisfactory in all, and good or very good in two-thirds.

The schools were invited to list 10 poems they believed all pupils should read. The list revealed that a small number of poems, including Alfred Noyes's The Highwayman, Walter de la Mare's The Listeners and Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes, dominate the primary curriculum. While they may be worth studying, too few are "genuinely challenging", say the inspectors. "Poetry has not been a priority for training in recent years. As a result many teachers appear to rely on poems they were taught in school, or on guidance from colleagues and published materials."

The most popular "classic" in primaries is William Blake's The Tyger, with a small minority also using poems such as Daffodils, The Ancient Mariner and The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Poems by Benjamin Zephaniah are the most likely contributions to understanding other traditions.

Secondary schools generally have a wider range of poems, reflecting the use of specialist teachers. Poems such as Wilfred Owen's Dulce et Decorum Est, WH Auden's Funeral Blues ("Stop all the clocks") and Dylan Thomas's Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night are popular, and when it comes to poets rather than poems, Shakespeare, Blake, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney are regulars. Too many secondaries lack a coherent teaching programme. At GCSE, the sheer volume of poetry, with the focus on technical analysis, coupled with "overly didactic teaching methods", is putting pupils off.

Top 10

The Highwayman, Alfred Noyes

On the Ning, Nang, Nong, Spike Milligan

Jabberwocky, Lewis Carroll

The Owl and the Pussycat, Edward Lear

From a Railway Carriage, RL Stevenson

The Listeners, Walter de la Mare

The Magic Box, Kit Wright

The Sound Collector, Roger McGough

Revolting Rhymes, Roald Dahl

Dog in the Playground, Allan Ahlberg

· This article was amended on Wednesday December 12 2007. Robert Louis Stevenson's name was misspelled as Stephenson in the article above. This has been corrected.


James Meikle

The GuardianTramp

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