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Reforming Education - more steps on a long, hard road

JohnbaldJohn Bald on Michael v Michael

The key to Michael Gove's speech on Thursday, and to our opponents' furious response, lies in his use of this joke:

As Dr Johnson once observed of two women arguing from the windows of houses on opposing sides of a street - ‘they will never agree, Boswell, because they are arguing from different premises’.

Follow Michael Rosen's monthly free hit at Michael Gove, and the debate in the comments column - in which I take part as Quaestor - and you will see the chasm running down the middle of education's street.

The Left see the purpose of Michael Gove's reforms to the curriculum, testing and examinations, as ensuring that a high proportion of children fail, are labelled as failures from the earliest possible age, have their confidence battered,  and are then fed into docile, low-paid employment. Some contributors add his intention to privatise the education service and hand it to Rupert Murdoch, and some just write four-letter abuse, which The Guardian usually deletes.

Michael Gove's premises are set out in his speech, which addresses the fundamental question of what education is for, beginning with literacy, which remains the foundation of everything else. He quotes the view of John Blake, of Labour Teachers, that Michael Rosen's column is  ‘basically an argument that poor kids can’t possibly learn to write properly’.

It's not surprising that this point was not mentioned in the Guardian's report of the speech, precisely because it hits home so hard. The Left has been pushing the view that Standard English is a dialect much like any other in a way that ignores its role as the key to learning very nearly every other subject. Non-standard English does not have the vocabulary or grammatical flexibility to cope with science and technology, with obvious consequences to those who are trapped in it.

Michael Rosen is not a teacher, but stands in the school of thought established by the National Association for the Teaching of English, of which his father was a founder, that holds that English teaching should be based on personal expression rather than on giving pupils a command of the formal structures of the language.

The private sector has taken little or no notice of this, and uses textbooks published by Galore Park, under the editorship of Susan Elkin, which combine opportunities for children to express themselves in writing with systematic teaching of grammar and comprehension, including questions that have to be answered in complete sentences.  Michael Rosen said in his response to the speech, that the last year of primary school "is too early to tackle grammar in any useful way".  

So, are The Guardian's enemies in the prep schools wasting their time by teaching grammar more or less from the outset? Or is Michael Rosen basing his view of grammar on his own experience at school in the fifties?

Follow his argument through, and there would be no teaching of grammar in primary schools at all, which is folly. Test grammar, he says, and you ensure failure. Test phonics, which he says should be taught, and you tell children who do not know their phonics - and their parents - that "they are not good enough" - the argument is extended more fully in this piece on "Education for liberation".  

For Conservatives, the purpose of testing is to ensure that proper attention is paid to essentials, so that children can succeed. Michael Gove points out that the early phonics check has helped teachers identify and tackle problems, as happened last year with parents who approached me for help after their child was identified as likely to fail, and who is now making good progress.

How long, I wonder would Mr Rosen wait before identifying a difficulty with using the information contained in letters and taking action?   Or would he, as he did on television in debate with Ruth Miskin, dismiss the issue as "sight reading", as if children in school did not have to read at sight every day. One thing Michael Rosen has shown, though, is that he knows that, by "correct grammar", Michael Gove means the grammar of formal, or Standard English. This is what the rest of the population means by it too.

Meantime, three pieces of good news.  First, the government's decision to boost computer science has brought agreement on a new system of training, organised by the British Computing Society, with support from Microsoft, Facebook, Next Generation Skills and the Royal Society. £2m will allow the BCS to recruit a core of 400 highly skilled teachers who will each pass on their skills to 40 schools. This is a good way to reach the bulk of the education system quickly and to stimulate interest, alongside initiatives such as Raspberry Pi, though the "cascade" element in the training has been problematic in other areas, and will need to be carefully structured.

Next, the draft curriculum for languages has been endorsed by the president of the Association for Language Learning, thus:

...We were promised a slimmed down curriculum and that is what we have, one attainment target, no level descriptors, and a short programme of study mainly focussing on skills with no defined content... I think we have a curriculum we can be creative with. Alongside this we have reforms in examinations and in accountability measures...

The Association has contributed to high level discussion about the curriculum and what should be in the programme of study. In our view, the curriculum allows for growth in terms of our thinking about how languages should be taught. Its focus on grammar does not signal a retreat to the grammar grind of the pre-communicative languages teaching era. Rather it re-states the importance of grammatical structure within a curriculum which aims to develop pupils' capacity to stand on their own two feet in a foreign language context. The inclusion of literary texts, authentic materials and spontaneous talk in languages is also to be welcomed.

This two-page curriculum, which replaced a handbook that ran to 132 pages for primary schools alone, shows that it is possible to get agreement, even from people who start from different perspectives.

Finally, there was more goodwill at the recent launch of the idea of a Royal College of Teaching, organised by Charlotte Leslie MP . The venue was  the Royal College of Surgeons, and participants covered virtually the full range of education's great and good, including exam boards, unions, professors and a young history teacher from Bristol, Emma Norman, who tore into educational management for taking over training for its own purposes, leaving no time for subjects.

Two more anti-subject books had been launched by academics in the same week, reminding us that the underlying battle lines are still in place, and one of the authors was present.

Dr Johnson was there in spirit.


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