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Blaming teachersJane Miller
Vol. 11 No. 15 · 17 August 1989

Blaming teachers

Jane Miller

2037 words

On the first day of the school holidays – and the hottest day for 13 years – 650 London teachers of English from secondary and primary schools met to discuss the implications of the second volume of the Cox Report.* The volume elaborates a set of proposals for the teaching of language and literature to all children between five and 16 who attend state schools and who will be embarking on the first stages of the new National Curriculum from this September. The day was organised by teachers and paid for by them. It was necessary to raise an extra £1600 in order to give everybody a photocopy of the report. Publications of this kind thud onto desks and doorsteps continuously, and they are free. However, the DES does not send copies to ordinary classroom teachers and was not prepared to let the day’s organisers have more than 50 copies.

The day went well, and a lot of work was done. There was some feeling that despite its sogginess (endlessly repeated words of the ‘increasing’ and ‘widening’ variety do duty as accounts of individual development, for instance) and its substitution of ‘targets’ and ‘levels’ and ‘strands’ and ‘components’ and ‘tests’ and ‘profiles’ for recognisable children who grow up, the Cox Report could have been far worse. It might even be possible to work constructively with a good many of its recommendations. The day’s single disappointment was that a number of teachers were turned away because there was not enough room.

The gap between this kind of occasion, its enthusiasm, its seriousness, its sophisticated and knowledgeable concern for children and their education, and for learning and language, and the ways in which teachers are portrayed by the Government seems unbridgeable. Teachers are in the position of so many other groups of public-sector workers at the moment: bombarded with criticism and blame, grossly overworked and underpaid, divested of the old machinery for protest, denied resources for improvement and reduced to watching helplessly as the education system is dismantled against a hooligan chorus pitting parents against teachers. I don’t believe that there has ever been a genuine will in this country to provide excellent education for all children. But since 1980 the Government’s determination to reduce public education to something which few middle-class parents and not many more working-class ones will be prepared to tolerate has been confidently pursued. Several independent schools have taken to promoting as a principal advantage the escape they provide from the National Curriculum. It is extraordinary to recall that when I began teaching in 1969 in a large London comprehensive six languages other than English were offered throughout the school. There are now no more than a handful of secondary schools in London where anything but French is taught, and there is a desperate shortage of French teachers.

There was no moment during the course of that scalding Saturday when I heard teachers complain that the Government’s proposals for English were too demanding or too difficult. On the contrary, many of the report’s expectations seemed to them unrealistically low. For instance, do you really have to be in the top percentile of 16-year-olds to be able to ‘talk about some of the factors that influence people’s attitudes to the way other people speak’? I would be surprised if there hadn’t been some pretty lively lessons with far younger children on that topic recently, especially as the English language – ‘our language’, as it shiftily becomes in the more popular versions of the argument – is in the news again. There has been another of those periodic eruptions of shrill and silly pronouncements illustrating the well-known law that people over forty can’t be doing with the language behaviour of those who are younger than they are. There is no doubt that language offers irresistible ground on which class and generational battle may be waged in tones of measured common sense tuned to the innocently offended ear-drum. Of Professor Brian Cox much was hoped. His Black Paper past promised drills and canons, rote and rigour. The report’s chapter on literature teaching is dull: but the report as a whole will be a disappointment for all those who were looking forward to their ill-tempered views becoming law.

Several dons, some journalists and, of course, the Prince of Wales have been letting rip on what the world must be coming to when their students and their servants (and God help those young people likely to become neither the one nor the other) habitually demonstrate that ‘they can’t speak English properly, they can’t write English properly,’ they can’t spell and have no knowledge at all of ‘the essential structure of an ordinary English sentence’. What must be particularly galling is that the young don’t appear to mind much about these incapacities. Indeed, all those postgraduate students who write ‘persue’ and ‘privilidge’ seem to lose not a moment’s sleep over it.

As an English teacher, or rather – and much, much worse – as a teacher and trainer of English teachers, I have had a few years in the firing line. I began my working life, as it happens, in a publisher’s office, where I read and edited other people’s writing. This taught me to spell and to punctuate in a more or less conventional manner and to use dictionaries and reference books when in doubt. I also learned that of all the writers whose prose I corrected or changed only one had no problems at all with what the Cox Report tellingly refers to as the ‘secretarial’ skills of writing, and that one was Kingsley Amis. I’m slightly embarrassed about the other thing I learned. This was that there is tremendous pleasure to be had from finding and drawing attention to the faults of others. I can barely resist marking printers’ errors even in published books, and I have to tear myself from menus and noticeboards. A page of prose sprinkled with my little red marks can puff me up as a huge pile of ironing can, or a clean house, with their demonstrations of manifest virtue. I have known, and I have cleaned up.

As soon as I began to teach children it became clear to me that copy-editing text and finding fault is one thing, and teaching anyone to write quite another. There are instantly more pressing questions: write what, who for, why and how long? I was no better and no worse than other teachers at getting some children to spell better, punctuate more consistently, take more care with their writing, obey some of the rules. And, like most teachers, I inherited classes in which about a third of the children could already do these things well. These were, invariably, the children who could not remember being taught how to do them. Those who could not do them, on the other hand, had memories of incessant lessons and tests and methods for remembering and punishments for not remembering and rules which never quite worked. So yes indeed, there are young people who leave school – and some of them are clever and academically successful – who do not spell or punctuate at all reliably; just as there are others – some of whom may even have been bored or defeated by school – who do these things well. This is certainly puzzling. And mere is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that things were otherwise in the past.

A question which may be worth posing to GCSE candidates, therefore, is why so many public personages are so certain that I am wrong about this. Despite the famous unearthing of a million adults who could neither read nor write nearly twenty years ago, despite the huge increase in examination passes in English, despite the money being made in the book trade and by newspaper and magazine owners, apocalyptic warnings of the imminent extinction of the literate as a species abound. ‘In all of my time, standards fell,’ Professor Norman Stone rather oddly writes, too moved, presumably, to consider how a sceptical reader might be inclined to connect the two parts of his sentence in a relation of cause to effect. Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper offers himself as a flying doctor battling single-handed with what I think is called a pandemic. Having assured himself of the truth of a colleague’s diagnosis at Oxford of ‘creeping, or galloping illiteracy among university students’, he suggests remedies: chapters of Churchill and Orwell for undergraduates, his own ten commandments for his infinitely sicker graduate students. I hope that Melanie Phillips of the Guardian is safely past the forty mark, since she writes as though she is: ‘Correct spelling, punctuation and an elementary grasp of sentence structure now seem to be luxuries, even among the so-called educated classes with a dismaying number of university graduates unable to master these essentials of a bygone age.’ I take it the eccentric punctuation is the Guardian’s rather than that of Ms Phillips’s old English teacher.

There are significant confusions here. Who are these irritable persons actually talking about? And are they really concerned about ‘essentials’ and a ‘basic framework’, or about ‘luxuries’, ‘difficult subjects’, which they do not expect to see made available to all children? For instance, amongst the children who may well leave school with an imperfect grasp of English spelling are speakers of another language. If children like these get enough time and attention, they will emerge from school as proficient speakers and writers of English as well as of at least one other language. The Cox Report recognises that possibility, though it does not insist hard enough on what would be necessary to achieve it. Those who go on about standards are usually clear that English is an essential and a child’s first language, where it is not English, is some kind of luxury – though they may waver if that language is a major European one. There will not have been, amongst those 650 sweltering teachers, a single one who wished to do anything but give every child in their classroom the best possible grounding in English. Yet while Prince Charles splutters and Norman Stone tells us how clever he is and Trevor-Roper dreams of Greek particles and Melanie Phillips appears to believe that the Cox Report confuses ‘grammar’ with ‘linguistic terminology’, the schools and colleges and the infrastructure responsible for the education of nearly 90 per cent of the population are torn apart before our very eyes.

The narrowings delivered by the National Curriculum, the English part of it especially, have to be seen within the general strategies the Government has developed for undermining state education and ultimately privatising it. The establishment of City Technical Colleges and Magnet schools is the beginning of this process: partnership between government and industry disguising the diversion of funds from inner-city schools, as has happened in the United States. The new requirement that school heads manage their own budgets is not only a cynical move to destroy the working lives of literally thousands of experienced teachers: the shift in financial management will in practice mean that many schools will no longer be able to afford even the staff they currently have. Forced redundancies will be added to the current shortage of teachers, which will mean that tens of thousands of children will have either a truncated school week next year or be unable to start school.

It is not, of course, that issues of funding, staffing and management put quarrels about language teaching in the shade, though they do explain why few teachers, if any, are hastening to join in the abjectly ill-informed and irrelevant debate set up by sections of the press and their tetchy pundits. It is an axiom of good teaching that failure should not be blamed on learners. That is an axiom one might expect teachers in universities to share with their colleagues in schools. Nor would it be out of place for employers (particularly royal ones) to take some responsibility for the language performance of their employees. Even more important, when will those who have solved their own educational dilemmas by sending their children to independent schools notice what is being done to the education of everybody else’s children?

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Vol. 11 No. 16 · 31 August 1989

I was surprised, on recieving the latest LRB (LRB, 17 August), to find myself being persued in your Diary by an educationilist, Jane Miller, for stating (in a Guardian diary) that, in my experience of teaching at Cambridge and Oxford, undergraduates’ standards in spelling suffered from increasing innacuracy. The innacuracy is simply a fact, and there is growing concensus about the problem in universities. It will not be superceded by Ms Miller’s blusterings to the effect a. that we should not mention it, b. that it isn‘t a real problem and c. that the Government’s to blame.

Maybe she is right to diffend bad spelling as far as these schools are concerned where the neccesary priority is to get any sort of words through the Walkmen But in higher education? Hopefully, educationilists won’t be dismisive if universities have to raise the whole problem officially, although hopelessly their response so far has mainly been one of spluttering indignation at the messengers, for bearing bad news.

What you do about the problem, I don’t claim to know. In my Guardian piece I carefully suggested that teachers were not entirely to blame. If it were up to me, I’d pay them twice as much, and give them greater powers of discipline and selection, but in return for a school day and a school year that were less of a conspirecy against working parents and latch-key children. The money for this might perhaps be found by cutting down the budgits and numbers of educationilists. No one outside their ranks would weep. And to console themselves, they could always devise another examination where there is a pass-mark for hurt feelings.

Norman Stone
Professor of Modern History, Oxford

Vol. 11 No. 18 · 28 September 1989

The question of who owns the English language and has a lawful right to interpret and teach it has been reopened, it seems, by Jane Miller (LRB, 17 August). ‘There are significant confusions here,’ she observes, after quoting a number of criticisms of the standard of English among recent generations of undergraduates at British universities. The critics are ‘irritable persons’; also, later, ‘tetchy pundits’ who are joining in ‘the abjectly ill-informed and irrelevant debate …’ Prince Charles ‘splutters’, Hugh Trevor-Roper ‘dreams of Greek particles’. Not much is gained by calling a debate ‘irrelevant’ without saying to what it is irrelevant; we can do our best to deal with the problem only where we find it, which for university teachers is with our students. It does not seem irrelevant to us when we have been confronted in recent years by a steep and alarming decline in the use and comprehension of the language, which manifests itself in incoherent writing and consequently in incompetence in developing coherent arguments. As for spelling, which I place at the lower end of the spectrum of concerns, intelligent people sometimes have a spelling ‘block’, but the phenomenon becomes more disturbing when it is only one symptom of a general linguistic impairment.

The recent phase of this debate was actually provoked by a comment of the Oxford University examining board in Modern History in 1988 on what it called evidence of ‘creeping illiteracy’ among finals candidates. At a subsequent faculty meeting at which I had spoken, I was requested by the Chairman to write a paper for the Faculty’s next meeting. In this paper – in which I added the word ‘galloping’ – I cited some cases of the misuse of English in the House of Lords, on the BBC and in the Times, but went on to argue that university history tutors have a responsibility for teaching clear writing to their own students, which they cannot brush aside with the disclaimer, ‘Our job is teaching history, not English,’ on the grounds that the latter ends as well as begins in the schools. I said: ‘There can be no history without knowledge, and there can be no understanding of history without interpretation, which necessarily involves an ability to explain.’ And also, a bit later: ‘Most of the people we teach may be able to survive twenty years later with only a tenuous grasp of whether the Normans did or did not introduce feudalism into England, but they emphatically will need to know how to construct a sequential argument and to elucidate the analysis of a complex problem.’ I would obviously not wish to confine these arguments to the discipline of history.

The publication of this paper in the Times HIgher Educational Supplement (9 June) led to correspondence from which I soon learnt that other British universities had already begun to introduce remedial courses in English structure and usage. Ms Miller says there is ‘no evidence whatsoever to suggest that things were otherwise in the past.’ Well, ‘whatsoever’ is strong language; British universities, so far as I know, have not found it necessary to establish remedial courses in the past. I am not sure whether Ms Miller does not wish to admit that a serious problem exists, or does not want teachers to be blamed. Or perhaps she thinks that it is undemocratic to maintain that a connection exists between the principles of grammar and ultimate clarity of thought and expression. (Some people do think this.) I am sorry to say that I agree with her about the lack of will in this country ‘to provide excellent education for all children’. But that does not explain all the shortcomings of the education that the country does provide. Soon after this debate had broken out (and I was happy to welcome Prince Charles as an ally, though I think he should take more care in selecting his own staff) I heard some portentous official duffer on the BBC assuring us that in the Midland working-class areas where he teaches it would be pointless to tell children about past participles (or words to that effect) because they wouldn’t know what on earth you meant. Here one wishes to agree with Ms Miller’s axiom of good teaching that failure should not be blamed on the learners.

Our critics imply that we are a bunch of toffee-nosed élitists, no doubt using the language as an instrument of class exploitation: but if so, I fear that I am the kind of élitist who finds it offensive to suggest that working-class children (or immigrant children) either cannot understand or will never need to understand the finer distinctions of which the language is capable. The diagnosis of the recent deterioration needs to be directed towards the theories of educationalists more than to the will of politicians. I do not recede from a remark I made that a ‘softening process’ came over English educational philosophy around the Sixties – it had appeared earlier in the United States – which seems to have infected a significant proportion of those now charged with teaching with the conviction that any form of mental effort inflicts brain damage on children. I and some of my irritable colleagues seem to have a higher opinion of children than many of those who teach them.

One of my correspondents told me, however, that the trouble began in the Fifties with HMIs going round discouraging teachers from teaching grammar on the ground that it stifles children’s creativity. I have never understood this argument. Of course you can teach anything, including literature, and probably creativity, in a way that stifles creativity: that is a reason for doing it well, not for pretending that it doesn’t matter, and wiping it off the educational agenda. I believe that this has been a substantial source of the decline, and has nothing to do with social class or political will.

Our young people are brought up in a world in which visual and graphic means of communication overwhelm written forms. But it has yet to be demonstrated that visual communication makes for clearer thinking or more rigorous analysis, or that it conveys a level of understanding comparable to that of the written word for either depth or permanence. That will never cease to be a responsiblity of universities, but it is one that begins in the schools, and it should be returned to them. A lot of children don’t go to universities.

J.R. Pole
Rhodes Professor of American History and Institutions, Oxford

Vol. 11 No. 19 · 12 October 1989

Jane Miller and Norman Stone are at odds over the problem of poor standards of English spelling: yet, like most native speakers of English, neither of them appears to understand the real nature of the problem, let alone its solution. In fact, it is not entirely clear that Jane Miller accepts that misspelling is a problem at all, while Professor Stone at least admits he is stumped. It does credit to both that they do not really want to blame either teachers or children for poor spelling. But if teachers and children are not to blame, then who is? The answer has been known for four hundred years, yet it is rarely mentioned these days when the problem is discussed. We need to remind ourselves of a few elementary linguistic facts.

When languages are first written down in alphabetic form, the method used is, as far as possible, to match the letters to the sounds they represent. So it was, more or less, with Anglo-Saxon, and so it is today, more or less, with most languages other than English and French. To the extent that the spelling of a language follows this basic alphabetic principle, correct spelling and indeed the acquisition of literacy skills in general pose little difficulty. Sometimes teachers have used a regularised phonetic spelling system for teaching basic literacy skills in English, the Initial Teaching Alphabet being a recent example, and the results have always proved dramatically better than has ever been possible with conventional spelling. Conversely, when one examines the many mistakes people make in conventional spelling, it is obvious that they arise when spellings are unphonetic and when there is no unambiguous correspondence between the pronunciation of words and the letters used to spell them.

Thus we do not often find words such as rag or forbid being misspelt. But the spelling mistakes quoted by Jane Miller and those deliberately used by Norman Stone all show an element of ambiguity. The sound does not tell us which spelling to use for the first syllable in persue, pursuade, and it is hard to know how the final syllable of privilidge should be written when we have such a variety of possibilities such as in village, college, knowledge, vestige, porridge. Why should not receive follow the model of believe, why should not educationalist follow nihilist? Nothing in the sound of the words tells us why not, yet the sound is the only information on which, in the heat of writing, the native speaker can base the spelling of most words.

Two points are clear: 1. the function of alphabets is to represent the sound of words, and 2. when they do not, literacy suffers and misspelling is an inevitable consequence. However, we have to go further than this: we have to recognise that the pronunciation of languages changes in the course of time, and that the spelling should be expected to change with it. Many languages have taken steps in the 20th century to ensure that their spelling is aligned more closely with their pronunciation. But in English there has not been for the past three hundred years the necessary understanding of how writing systems work to enable such modernisation to take place. The occasional adjustment such as show for shew, fantasy for phantasy, medieval for mediaeval, has been just a drop in the ocean of our antiquated, cumbersome and for all too many people cripplingly inconvenient writing system.

Christopher Upward

Vol. 11 No. 20 · 26 October 1989

It appears to me that Jane Miller’s spirited and indignant defence of schoolteachers (LRB, 17 August) is, as counter-attack, directed less against ‘tetchy pundits’ in the universities and elsewhere than against a government which by financial and other means has made education in the proper use of English more and more difficult. Professor Pole (Letters, 28 September) now returns, with the Government, Prince Charles and others, to ‘blaming teachers’. When accusations and defences are so various one looks for a more general cause.

Something so undeniable and so nearly universal as the present disregard for precision in the use of English (and of other languages, needless to say) must clearly be reckoned part of contemporary culture. A dominant feature of that culture – I am tempted to say the dominant culture of all forms of popular communication – is advertising. In the West at least, advertising in all available modes, visual, auditory, verbal, supplies not just the ambience in which ‘our young people are brought up’ but the atmosphere in which all of us live and which most have come to accept.

Acceptance is the real point: not that we believe what advertisements tell us, but that we don’t care about their ‘truth’, because in one or another of innumerable ways – there is literally no end to the forms of flattery – they tell us what we want to hear. This is a commonplace observation, of course, an account of the arts of persuasion at least as old as Plato. What we have forgotten, or have been persuaded to forget, is the moral effect of allowing ourselves to be influenced by what we know to be untrue. Untrue in intention, whether or not it may be ‘true to fact’.

As an agent of corruption, of long and continuing growth, now pervading the whole of our commercial civilisation, advertising governs a great deal of behaviour, and especially our attitudes to language. Reinforced by behaviourist theories of communication (defined not as conveying information but as any act that produces reaction, as a loud noise can ‘communicate’, or excite, fear or rage), the expectation is no longer that language can tell us what is the case; whether or not we believe there is anything that can be called the truth we don’t expect words even to approximate it. People make sounds, or other signs, merely to nudge one another into some desired action; if it is not always to buy something, that remains the paradigm. (We ‘sell’ ideas.) If that is so, who cares about clarity and propriety in the use of language?

Blame for this general condition can hardly be attached exclusively to any group – not even, perhaps, to a government as enthralled by advertising as the present one. But teachers, though far from being most at fault, do have a special responsibility in trying to deal with it. Might not special courses in detecting and exposing the language of deception have a key position in the teaching of English? Might they not have a real, creative interest for a generation who, whatever else they may or may not know, know that they are always being conned? Would the Department of Education accept such a course as part of the core curriculum?

Christopher Small

Vol. 11 No. 21 · 9 November 1989

I am surprised that someone who comes from Birmingham, as Christopher Upward does (Letters, 12 October), can ponder a spelling system based on pronunciation. Between ‘plonk’ in the West-Midlands and ‘plenk’ down here, at least ‘plank’ has the virtue of being neutral. Perhaps I should add that I spent my first 19 years in Wolverhampton.

David Mills
London W1

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