About the Competition

National finals

Hear From The Students


Andrew Motion

Judging criteria

17-19 March 2016


Homerton College, Cambridge


PBH Finals 2016 - 2 (small)-1

Poetry By Heart Has a New Champion!

Jessica Mason from St John Rigby Sixth Form College is the new Poetry By Heart Champion for 2016.

Reciting three poems in front of a highly appreciative audience at Homerton College, Cambridge University, Jessica triumphed at the end of a search for a champion that began six months ago with thousands of students taking part in school competitions up and down the country.

In presenting her with a specially designed trophy the Chair of the judging panel and co-founder of Poetry By Heart Andrew Motion commented, “Jessica has recited with passion and intelligence and we are delighted to present her with the Poetry By Heart trophy for 2016.” Praising the performances of all 41 Regional Finalists he added, “Over this weekend our students have shown us the acoustic qualities of verse in ways which have been immensely powerful and moving.”

In her concluding remarks at the end of a highly successful event Co-founder and Co-director of Poetry By Heart, Julie Blake said: “Every year we are blown away by the remarkable recitations of so many different poems. These young people have so many different stories about why they chose what they did, how they learned them and why they matter. That they choose to share them with us in the spotlight of competition is moving beyond words. The very best are literally breath-taking.”

Jessica who is studying A level English Literature, English Language, Biology and History at St John Rigby College in Wigan said, “I can’t believe I’ve won. It’s been a fantastic weekend. I loved choosing poems that I could really relate to and I enjoyed reciting them in such beautiful surroundings with such lovely people.”

Jessica recited “The Chimney Sweeper” by William Blake; “How to Kill” by Keith Douglas and “My Grandfather at the Pool” by Glyn Maxwell.

Second place was awarded to Alice Grundy from Brentwood School in Essex and third place went to Ella Blackburn from Teesdale School in Durham.

41 county competition winners and their teachers gathered at Homerton College on Thursday evening (March 17th) for a dinner and formal welcome to the college and the event from Geoff Ward, the Principal of Homerton and the poet Jean Sprackland. The semi-final stage of the competition began in the main auditorium at Homerton on Friday morning (March 18th). In addition to watching fellow competitors recite, students enjoyed a range of activities including tours of Cambridge, creative writing workshops, guided relaxation sessions and talks on applying to University.

A special feature of the competition was the reciting of poems chosen from the First World War showcase on the Poetry By Heart website by all 41 regional finalists on Saturday morning which was a unique and moving occasion.

Jessica and eight other finalists recited in front of a distinguished panel of judges from the world of poetry including Andrew Motion, Jean Sprackland, Daljit Nagra, Patience Agbabi, Glyn Maxwell and Tim Dee. The poet Jacob Sam-La Rose hosted the event throughout the weekend. On Friday evening all seven poets read for the students in a remarkable event that saw each poet take to the stage for seven minutes.

“Poetry Please” from BBC Radio 4 recorded students for a special “Poetry Please” episode to be broadcast in April and Cambridge TV also made a film of the event.

All three previous Poetry By Heart national champions and several runners up returned to help with the smooth running of the weekend in a testament to the lasting power of participation in the competition.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said:

“I am delighted to support Poetry by Heart. By encouraging children to enjoy literature, we are not just building their imagination but helping to boost their writing and vocabulary skills too, giving them the foundation they need to get on in life. Competitions like this will also help develop confidence and character in young people. I want to congratulate the finalists and everyone who took part, they should all be very proud of their achievements.”





At the 2015 Poetry By Heart national finals, we took a camera and some questions and spoke to the students from different backgrounds and different schools, unscripted, about their experiences of Poetry By Heart. The result is below. Please share it with everyone you possibly can who may be interested. Spread the word on social media. Put it in newsletters. Show it in classrooms. Show it in assemblies. Send it out into the world!


Hear From The Students from Poetry By Heart on Vimeo.


Poetry By Heart is a national competition designed to encourage pupils aged 14-18 and at school and college in England to learn and to recite poems by heart.  Not in an arm-waving, props-supported thespian extravaganza, but as the outward and audible manifestation of an inwardly-understood and enjoyed poem.

Poetry By Heart successfully engages young people from diverse social backgrounds and all types of school in personal discovery of the pleasures of poetry. Each pupil is challenged to memorise and recite two poems – one published before 1914 and one in or after 1914 or one from a special collection of World War 1 poems as part of the centenary commemorations.. Pupils choose these from the timeline anthology of over 600 years of poetry on this website.

The competition is a pyramid of participation from individual classrooms to whole school/college contests, then county contests, regional semi-finals and the grand final, held at Homerton College, Cambridge. In the process, pupils foster deep personal connections with the poems chosen and bring poetry alive for their friends, families and communities.


Ever since I first started reading poetry in earnest, more than forty years ago, I’ve always thought its meaning has as much to do with sound as it does to do with sense. Poetry, crucially, is an acoustic form. It’s emotional noise. That is why it’s often able to move us before we completely understand it. Its sounds allow us to receive it in our hearts, as well as in our heads.

It has always been my hope in setting up Poetry by Heart that we would give young people the opportunity to enjoy a wider range of poetry than they usually find in their preparation for exams.  We want to offer new ways of finding pleasure and confidence in a part of the curriculum where such things can be in short supply. The sort of pleasure and confidence, in fact, that adds tremendously to young people’s self-esteem, to their verbal skills, to their powers of communication, and so to a more fulfilled life and greater opportunities.  The competition is an end in itself, but it’s also a gateway, a beginning.

Poetry By Heart is designed to put the emphasis on learning by heart, not on learning by rote. It is about understanding and remembering the deep recurring truths about our experience as humans, in terms that are especially beautiful and resonant, It is about doing this in a pleasure-filled way. And it is part of the same benevolent revolution in poetry-proving and poetry-teaching that formed a part of the original intention in founding the Poetry Archive during my ten years as Poet Laureate.

Most of us have some recollection of being made to learn things when we were kids ourselves, and most of us can remember bits or all of those poems in our older age. This tells us several things, I think. It tells us how important it is to learn good stuff, so that our heads are full of nourishing words and not full of junk. It tells us this good stuff changes its meanings in very interesting ways as the years pass and the words stay in our memories. It tells us that despite or because of the effort involved in learning by heart, we as humans have a primitive appetite for it. It makes us feel good. It makes us find ourselves.

When Samuel Johnson was ruminating about the value of literature, he said it helped him ‘enjoy and endure’ his existence. Those two words form the foundation of our competition. We want it to be fun, as it encourages pupils to discover new pleasures and fulfilments, but we want it to be serious as well: an excitement and a dare. To demonstrate, in fact, the marvellous form of two-way travelling that poetry allows us: into ourselves, and out into the world, at one and the same time.

Student performances in all rounds of the competition must be judged and scored using these criteria.  Please note that these have changed slightly from the criteria used in 2014-15: we have tweaked the scoring and made the poem difficulty category a tie-break matter.

Voice 1-7 points

This category is to evaluate the auditory nature of the recitation.  Consider the student’s volume, pace, rhythm, intonation and pronunciation.  In a strong performance, all words are pronounced appropriately in the student’s natural accent and the volume, rhythm and intonation greatly enhance the recitation.  Pacing is appropriate to the poem.

Understanding 1-7 points

This category is to evaluate whether the student exhibits an understanding of the poem is his or her recitation.  A strong performance relies on a powerful internalisation of the poem rather than distracting dramatic gestures.  In a strong performance, the sense of the poem is powerfully and clearly conveyed to the audience.  The student displays an interpretation that deepens and enlivens the poem.  Meanings, messages, allusions, irony, tones of voice and other nuances are captured by the performance.  A low score is awarded if the interpretation obscures the meaning of the poem or makes use of affected character voices and accents, inappropriate tone and inflection, singing, distracting and excessive gestures, or unnecessary emoting.

Performance 1-7 points

This category is to evaluate the overall success of the performance, the degree to which the recitation has become more than the sum of its parts.  Has the student captivated the audience with the language of the poem?  Did the student bring the audience to a better understanding of the poem?  Did the contestant’s physical presence enhance the recitation, engaging the audience through appropriate body language, confidence and eye contact?  Does the student understand and show mastery of the art of recitation?  The judges will use this score to measure how impressed they were by the recitation, and whether the recitation has honoured the poem.   A low score will be awarded for recitations that are poorly presented, ineffective in conveying the meaning of the poem, or conveyed in a manner inappropriate to the poem.

Accuracy 1-4 marks

A separate judge will mark missed or incorrect words during the recitation. Students will score a full 4 marks for a word-perfect recitation; 3 for a small number of errors which do not significantly affect meaning and/or flow; 2 for a recitation where the errors do affect meaning and/or flow; 1 for a recitation where occasional use is made of the prompter; 0 for a recitation which requires considerable prompting.


Additional considerations in the event of a close tie: variety, difficulty, diversity

In the event of a very close tie between two or more students, judges should consider the the level of challenge the student has chosen. This might be indicated in the variety of poems selected for recitation, with different styles, moods, language varieties, voices or settings. It might also be indicated by poem difficulty. A poem with difficult content conveys complex, sophisticated ideas, that the student will be challenged to grasp and express.  A poem with difficult language will have complexity of diction and syntax, metre and rhyme scheme, and shifts in tone or mood.  Poem length is also considered in difficulty but bear in mind that longer poems are not necessarily more difficult than shorter ones.  Judges may also consider the diversity of a student’s recitations with this score; a student is less likely to score well in this category when judges note that a student’s style of interpretation remains the same regardless of poem choice or challenge.