Raymond Antrobus on Michael Gove and the power of spoken word poetry

Raymond Antrobus on Michael Gove and the power of spoken word poetry

Spoken Word Educator Raymond Antrobus has seen first-hand the positive impact contemporary poetry can have on students, including those who struggle to engage with the traditional syllabus, and who struggle to express themselves. So why is it being cut from the curriculum?

We disconnected creativity and art. But if it ain’t no creativity ain’t no art and if ain’t no art then even the schools must close – Amiri Baraka

Young people have so much to say, how can they not write? – Nick Makoha


The role of the poet is to celebrate, to mourn, to explore and speculate, to look at life and say “isn’t this weird, horrendous, funny, strange, amazing?” This is synonymous with a good teacher.

As a poet (who is alive) it’s hard not to take offence at the fact that Michael Gove is removing all contemporary poetry from the reformed GCSE curriculum launching in 2015. Although contemporary poetry may still be used in the classroom, students will be assessed on their interpretations of texts written within the Romantic era, (1789 – 1889). This is a new challenge for both the teacher and the poet.

For example, how do you engage so-called “low ability” or “disenfranchised” students with classical (exclusively male) texts, particularly in multi-cultural schools? How can teachers make their students feel like this is something relevant to them?

We ought to start with taking an interest in their lives and culture, giving students ownership over their language and letting them explore the possibilities for themselves with creative writing facilitation. Poet and educator Roger Robinson taught me “I take students from what they know to what they don’t know, I never take them from what they don’t know”.

Almost on a daily basis I see spoken word poetry impact the school life of teachers and students. I see shy students develop from not having the confidence to read out loud from a book, to belting out a poem they have written into a microphone in front of their school. Here’s an extract from a year nine student poem:

“The first time I found out I was dyslexic,

I was in Arabic school, shy, hanging out

with shadows, waiting for people to leave

before revealing myself back in the light.

It was difficult for me to understand

how we Muslims read Arabic, like God

created us backwards, backwards

Like a DVD player rewinding a CD,

backwards, because our brains work differently”

This poem is by a student in a catholic school. He had never had an opportunity to speak about his culture. This interested the class and created a perfect learning environment because the interest was genuine. Also, the teachers did not know he was dyslexic, which answered a few questions about his homework. Once a student has had this level of interaction with language, how can they not feel its relevance?

I have worked with Congolese and Somalian refugees coming to terms with their experiences: “…the first time I realised the aim of a spotlight is not about the light it shines but how it makes everything dark around it.”

A boy (who is white) dealing with the trauma of being racially and physically bullied by boys on his council estate: “…his fists were trying to open me up and all they found was black and blue.”

A boy on the brink of expulsion whose writing teachers suddenly found praiseworthy: “…set your eyes upon the Irish man with the black man in the street, because they were denied entry to a tavern which should have had a red carpet welcome.”

A girl with a heart murmur who was able to express her fears ended up inspiring me to write about her: “Write what your heart wants to say to every dream it keeps you out of.”

This is the power of art – you learn a craft and use it to explore something about life, and then you make it your own. Art is about discovery, discipline and learning. How can this not be something that everyone who has been to school knows?

Why are arts funding and youth engagement projects being cut?

Why do so many artists feel undervalued by capitalism?

Bottom line is, art is a powerful educational tool and provides most of what we would need to start an educational revolution.

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Raymond Antrobus

Published on 17/04/14

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