Irish writers dropped from UK school curriculum in move to increase diversity

Removal of authors from English syllabus condemned by British education secretary

Irish writers have been dropped from the exam curriculum in British schools in favour of writers from more diverse backgrounds.

Poets Seamus Heaney and Eavan Boland and playwright Brian Friel have been removed from both the GCSE and A-levels curriculums.

The move has been made by the Oxford, Cambridge and the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) exam board known as the OCR which is one of main examination boards in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The OCR announced a new curriculum last week. Its chief executive Jill Duffy said the purpose of the changes were to “reflect diversity and inclusivity not just in our qualifications, but in the material we produce to support their delivery, as well as in the assessment of our qualifications”.


Seamus Heaney’s poem Punishment, in which he compares the excavation of the body of a mutilated woman from a bog to the punishment handed out by the Provisional IRA to women during the Troubles, has been replaced in the Conflict section of the GCSE poems. Also replaced is one of the first World War’s best known poems Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen, A Poison Tree by William Blake, The Man He Killed by Thomas Hardy and Phrase Book by Jo Shapcott.

Heaney’s Opened Ground anthology between 1966 and 1996 is being replaced at A Level by black British author Malika Booker’s Pepper Seed which explores life from the perspective of the Caribbean diaspora in Britain. It was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney’s Poetry Prize for First Collection.

‘Cultural vandalism’

Evan Boland’s New Collected Poems is being replaced by Fatimah Ashgar’s If They Come For Us, a collection about being a Pakistani Muslim woman in the contemporary United States.

Brian Friel’s Translations is being replaced by Nigerian playwright Inua Ellams’ play Barber Shop Chronicles which was first staged in 2017.

OCR English subject supervisor Isobel Woodger said the changes were made in consultation with language and literature teachers.

The OCR’s changes have become part of the culture war in the UK with the education secretary Nadhim Zahawi describing the removal of Wilfred Owen’s poem and that of Philip Larkin’s An Arundel Tomb as acts of “cultural vandalism”.

Mr Zahawi, the son of Iraqi refugees, said he learned to speak English properly through the poems of Larkin.

He tweeted: “Larkin and Owen are two of our finest poets. Removing their work from the curriculum is cultural vandalism.

“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.

“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.”

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times