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The Left's war on grammar and phonics

John Bald, an independent educational consultant, and blogger on damaging role of the National Association for the Teaching of English

My final posting on subversion concerns the National Association for the Teaching of English, NATE, which has played the longest, and to date the most successful, game of all. NATE grew out of LATE, the London Association for the Teaching of English, whose founder members in 1947 included an avowed Marxist, the late Professor Harold Rosen. With two colleagues, Professor James Britton and Douglas Barnes, he wrote a very influential book, Language, the Learner and the School (1969) that challenged the relevance of formal English to most school pupils, and followed it in 1972 with Language and class: a critical look at the theories of Basil Bernstein, a work that contrasted Bernstein’s idea that the language used by children from less educated families was restricted with William Labov’s The Logic of Non-Standard English, essentially a vindication of New York street slang. Why, asked Rosen, is there no English Labov?

NATE has provided a collective answer, offering a vindication of non-standard English that has come to dominate too much of English and examination practice. NATE’s view often assumes the guise of innovation and diversity – its latest conference, sponsored by the examination board AQA (the one whose chief examiner gave someone a mark for writing f- off on his paper), was entitled One Language, Many Voices – and constantly diverts attention from skills, literacy and understanding of formal English. Rosen himself set the ball rolling.

When Margaret Thatcher, in 1972, set up the Bullock Committee to investigate a decline in reading test (NS6) scores, the then staff HMI for English rigged the committee against her, and its report (1975) duly recommended abolishing the test that had caused the problem. Neither NS6, nor any other nationally standardised test, has ever been used since – our current assessments, run by professional officers who are predominantly if not exclusively former members of NATE, use their own scoring system that can be altered to suit the needs of the administrators. We therefore do not know whether reading standards are better or worse than they were in 1972, or by how much. One up to Harold.

Since Bullock, NATE has maintained its radical, leftist, stance, overtly and covertly as the occasion has required. For example, its response to the inclusion of Standard English (an unfortunate term for formal English, as no-one likes to be standardised) was a pamphlet rather clumsily entitled Made Tongue-tied by Authority. A former NATE member did his very best to organise a committee of teachers against the inclusion of phonics in the Dearing Review of the NC, and only failed because one Catholic headteacher said she would resign if he did so.

NATE overplayed its hand just once, in the early nineties, when the Conservative government set up a £28m project called LINK, to promote, in the government’s view, the teaching of grammar. NATE advised its members to apply for the jobs, and ensured that over 20 of 28 regional co-ordinators came from its ranks. As it happened, I was invited to join a deputation from the Campaign for Real Education to see the Minister of State, Tim Eggar, and slid across the table an article in which one of these co-ordinators had set out his view of the project’s agenda, which was precisely the opposite of the government’s. Tim Eggar’s response was immediate and to the point – What can we do? Cut the money? And that was the end of Link.

NATE’s submission to Michael Gove’s curriculum review is a careful piece of work that masks its
contentious suggestions by saying things no-one would disagree with.

The aims of English should be:

  • To encourage students to develop a life-long love and enthusiasm for language and literature in all its forms.
  • To enable students to become both critical and creative thinkers,
    readers and writers through the development of the skills and resources they will need to
    succeed in an increasingly literate and multimodal world.
  • To encourage a knowledge, understanding, appreciation and tolerance of the multicultural and multiethnic society and world in which we live.

It praises an additional emphasis on the spoken word and the use of "multi-modal texts" (ie films and video rather than books) and argues that

"A knowledge-based English curriculum has many benefits, but it must not be used to oust the multiple and multi-modal literacy skills which will prepare students for the 21st century and beyond. As aforementioned, the English curriculum should embrace development of literacy which includes engagement with media, visual, digital and multi-modal texts. It must acknowledge the heritage of the past but also recognise the need for students to become confident readers and makers of their own twenty-first century texts and meanings."

Accurate reading, grammar, handwriting, spelling? So last century. The future is NATE. Or would be, if they hadn’t been rumbled.


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