Nadhim Zahawi battles exam board ‘vandals’ who ditched Larkin poems in name of diversity

The Education Secretary says he will speak to OCR about its decision to reform the GCSE English literature syllabus

The minister says studying the poems as a teenager helped him understand Britain Credit: JOHN SIBLEY/REUTERS

The removal of poems by Philip Larkin and Wilfred Owen from a GCSE examination has been branded as “cultural vandalism” by Nadhim Zahawi.

The Education Secretary criticised the move by OCR, one of the three main exam boards, on Thursday after it announced a reform to its English literature syllabus to make way for “exciting and diverse” new poems.

Mr Zahawi said he would be “speaking to the exam board” about the decision to remove 15 poems from its poetry anthology, which will come into effect in exams in the summer of 2024.

The shake-up of OCR’s anthology offering, reported by The Times, will see some poets such as Larkin, Owen and Seamus Heaney removed to make way for a more diverse range of literary voices.

Mr Zahawi used Twitter to condemn the exam board’s decision, which will see the updated selection taught from September this year.

He said: 

The Education Secretary also used his own personal experience to advocate for the retention of the famous poets’ work, adding: “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.”

‘New syllabus represents diverse voices’

William Blake, Emily Bronte, John Keats, Sylvia Plath and Carol Ann Duffy are among the established poets remaining in the OCR English literature syllabus.

New names include British-Jamaican poet Raymond Antrobus, as well as Ukrainian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky.

Carol Ann Duffy is one of the poets whose work is remaining in the OCR English literature syllabus Credit: Rii Schroer

In total, OCR has included 15 new poems, retained 30 and removed 15.

The exam board said: “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 to one of the first black women in 19th-century America to publish a novel.

“Of the 15 poets whose work has been added, 14 are poets of colour. Six are black women, one is of South Asian heritage. Our new poets also include disabled and LGBTQ+ voices.”

Jill Duffy, OCR’s chief executive, called it an “inspiring set of poems that demonstrates our ongoing commitment to greater diversity in the English literature that students engage with”.