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Formal English - an argument that must be won

BaldtwoJohn Bald says if French children can learn to read and write clearly so can British ones

The Sutton Trust noted this week that personal statements from state school pupils applying to university contained three times as many errors per 1,000 words as those from independent schools. Sixth form colleges had the highest rate of error, and even grammar school candidates made twice as many errors as those from the private sector. Another interesting piece of evidence came in a conversation a couple of weeks ago with a senior figure in the examinations world.  At GCSE, borderline D-C grade candidates had typically been achieving C grades in 74% of their oral examinations, 54% of their coursework and only 4% of their written examinations. The figures had been buried by Labour's Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

Put these together, with the publicly acknowledged practice of rehearsed and fiddled coursework, and we have a picture of English teaching in state schools that is no longer focused on enabling all pupils to say what they need or wish to say clearly and accurately. The National Association for the Teaching of English has, in other words, largely succeeded in its goal of moving the focus of English teaching away from giving pupils full access to the formal structures of the language, and towards personal expression. It has infiltrated the system so much that even examining boards are sponsoring its activities, while it of course enjoyed a clean sweep of professional positions on the QCA, as well as quite senior positions in the civil service.

Overall an exemplary exercise in leftist Freemasonry, and, looking back over the Association's early journals, something close to the aims of the founders.  Edmund Clark in English In Education 1971 put it pretty clearly:

"So, the job of the teacher is to make room for the pupil to speak and write, to provide stimulus and context rather than instruction and control...the concept of a teacher of English is contradictory...what we are involved in is nothing less than a revolution in social relations in the English classroom...the shift from prescriptive English teaching to an expressionistic approach has been accompanied by a shift from a regulative teaching style to a much more permissive and egalitarian one."

Professor Tony Burgess, writing at the halfway point in NATE's journey in 1992 (Changing English, Essays for Harold Rosen) challenged "the primacy of a single dialect presented as standard", and this is at the heart of the problem. The form of language that has been described as "standard"  contains as many variations as there are human purposes, but is based on a small number of key grammatical features - sentence, verb, paragraph, extended vocabulary - that enable quick and accurate communication by providing an underlying organisational framework for everything else.  The private sector, backed by the publisher Galore Park, has never departed from this, so that my own approach with a pupil who has writing difficulties is now to take them through Susan Elkin's Galore Park English course, and build up the skills that the private sector insists on.

This is not to say that the state sector has abandoned them - for all its faults, the English national strategy did attempt to put grammar back into primary English teaching. What has happened is, rather, a process of putting them on the back burner, so that if children have not mastered elements such as joined writing, spelling, and reading beyond the initial stages by secondary school, English teachers more or less give up on them, and turn to substandard literature, videos and of Mice and Men. The result for pupils can be devastating - I've seen the books of of fifteen and sixteen year olds, with ill-formed printing - the letter f written like reversed figure 6, unpunctuated sentence fragments and expression limited by sheer lack of knowledge of vocabulary beyond the here and now. One progressive English teacher, Phil Beadle, took a little (and uninformed) journey into reading teaching a couple of years ago, during which he admitted that a child - sorry, kid - coming into his class who couldn't read would go out again in the same state. Two more of Mr Beadle's "principles" come out in this clip - "Detentions - don't do them,"  and "Never believe a thing a child says to you" is another.

And stand against them - our Conservative ministers, Michael Gove, Elizabeth "hand-grenade" Truss (building on foundations laid by Nick Gibb), and Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, who will not accept second best for children educated in state schools. The Sutton Trust's solution to weak personal statements from state school pupils is to downgrade the personal statement. This is an admission that state schools cannot be as good as private schools that is both insulting and unnecessary. Grammar schools in the sixties enabled their most able pupils to compete on level terms with private schools, and Sir Michael has shown that state schools can still do this if they are properly run and organised.

Which brings us back to the current controversies over the national curriculum and examinations.  Ofqual, which remains in essence a New Labour quango,  says there is no precedent for a single examination at
16 sat by all pupils. There is, though,  a very close precedent in the French Brevet, a traditional examination sat by 15 year olds, with a pass rate this year of 84.5%. This year's French paper is based on the requirement to write clear, fluent and accurate French, much as our own students need to write clear, fluent and accurate English.

If they can do it, so can we

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