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Raising standards for school leavers in English and maths is crucial

BaldJohn Bald says a grade D in English is a "near miss" - Gove is right not to give up on the young but to make them persist

Three years on, we are moving from sorting out Labour's mess to building the foundations of Conservative success. The phonics check for six year olds, that attracted so much leftist hostility last year, has passed without much comment second time around. The new spelling and grammar test for eleven year olds has been prepared to an excellent standard, as set out in this technical paper, and the new provision for teaching multiplication tables by the age of eight, for most pupils as crucial to success in maths as phonics are to success in English, has not attracted the widespread criticism that our opponents expected.

The national curriculum for languages, which introduces a balanced approach, based on brain research, that uses all channels of communication to build learning, has had a very good professional reception.

The latest development is the commitment to raising standards for school leavers in English and maths, in response to the Wolf report that exposed fake vocational qualifications. Christine Blower of the NUT said that on Radio 4 that there was no hiding the importance of English and maths, but that there was also no point in "marching young people in and out of the examination room."

Ms Blower is perfectly right, and skills minister Matthew Hancock made a similar point in a calm and effective presentation on BBC Breakfast:  The crucial thing, he said, is that they keep learning. If they get up to GCSE standard, great, but they will be expected rather than forced to resit the exam. What we will no longer do is let them give up.

I said recently that I didn't see a grade D in English as a fail, and I still don't. It is a near miss. Young people with grade D in English typically communicate clearly and have basic understanding of the material they are studying. They usually have some weaknesses in sentence construction and organisation that can be tackled by effective teaching, and sometimes use restricted vocabulary, often because if they're not sure how to spell a word, they'll use a simpler, word instead.

Some are unfairly marked down because they do not show skills in literary appreciation that are more properly tested in the literature examination. The return to English language will help tackle this, and the decision to drop speaking and listening from the examination will stop the practice of hiding weak literacy skills by bumping up marks for oral work - a besetting sin at the margin of GCSE C/D grades.

The thrust of this examination and testing policy, and of the new national curriculum, is a move away from disguising and certifying failure to promote "inclusion", and towards clearer definition of success in order to make it available to more and more pupils. In The Guardian  Michael Gove was taken to task for his perfectly clear statement that:

Everything I am doing is driven by getting more children – especially the poorest children – to succeed academically.

This is, however, a simple statement of that rare political commodity, the truth - even if the Secretary of State could not resist tweaking the readership's nose by comparing free schools with the  soviets of Petrograd.

Finally, some thoughts on Latin from halfway through the latest work of that other gadfly, Professor Mary Beard. Confronting the Classics is a collection of essays with a light touch and a wider range of reference than that of any other classical scholar I've ever read (not that I've read that many...)

I found her revelation that the "parallel text", a great help in the intermediate stages of language learning, was current in Roman schoolbooks in  Latin and Greek, quite remarkable. However, her idea that in much of our language we "ventriloquise" the ancient Greeks and Romans by using their vocabulary misstates the case.

The presence of words taken from Latin and Greek in nearly every language in Europe, and the adaptability of their roots to construct new words to accommodate new knowledge and experience, have given them a role in modern thinking that is, I modestly propose, much more significant than their grammar.


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