Blaming teachers

Jane Miller

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?

[*] English for ages five to 16: Proposals of the Secretary of State for Education and Science and the Secretary of State for Wales, June 1989.