To Read or Not to Read

Teachers are up in arms against the Government and for once – don’t expect this to become a regular thing – I’m with the Government. They are so mad, they’ve resorted to name calling. According to news reports, the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE) called Education Secretary Alan Johnson a “bird brain” – that’s right, apparently the whole association got together to agree on this term. I’m mean, if you’re English teachers you would want to pick your words carefully.

Why have they resorted to ad hominem attacks? Alan Johnson has made the most outrageous demands. He wants classic authors like Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte taught in Years 7, 8, and 9, along with poets like John Masefield, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and (how outrageous can you get) William Shakespeare.

The NATE Policy Director Ian McNeilly said Johnson is only trying to secure a few more votes from Middle England “by not allowing standards to slip”. That’s right, according to NATE, the only reason to teach proper English literature is because the middle class want to avoid standards from slipping, and that’s a bad thing. But McNeilly continued, “But you don’t have to do that by shoe-horning a classic author into the classroom.”

Classic authors are so out of place in the classroom that they have to be “shoe-horned” into it. Am I the only qualified teacher in the country who thinks this is a bad thing?

NATE’s secondary schools committee chairman Ian Brinton noted, “Pupils are not going to learn if they are going to be stunned into a sense of, ‘ this is what good literature is’.” Is not the suggestion that they will be stunned by good literature indicative of a problem? But he added, “I would be interested to know what Alan Johnson and the QCA people were reading at 11 and 12 years old.”

Well, there are a lot of people at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, but as Alan Johnson was born in May 1950, he would have been in the first, second, and third forms (as Years 7-9 were known then) from 1961 to 1964. I would contact Sloane Grammar School where he was enrolled, but it appears to have disappeared. There is a further education college at that address now. I’ll have to do more research into what pupils studied at grammar schools in the early 1960s.

The best I can do is from the reader comments left on the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail articles. They overwhelmingly had no problem reading classic authors at that age. But then most school leavers will spend their lives reading the The Sun. Well, maybe you can call that reading.

Brinton said he would be surprised if any of the authors on the QCA list was taught to this age group. With regard to the poets on the list, he said a more practical approach would be to use poetry to teach children how to read a text closely. In other words, the poetry itself is of no real value.

Part of the reason English teachers don’t want to teach classic authors is that they don’t see the importance of these works and don’t feel competent to teach them. After all, 49% of English teaching in secondary schools don’t have an English degree. (That’s better than Maths, where 58% don’t have a Maths degree – over all two-thirds of secondary school teachers in this country do not have a degree in their teaching subject.) You can’t teach what you don’t know.

This could indicate that the teaching and learning of English literature is in a nose-dive from which it will not be able to recover. They used to teach things like, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Now for Mr Dickens it’s just the worst of times.

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4 Responses to To Read or Not to Read

  1. Elizabeth says:

    This is just terrifying, Dave.
    When I did my “O” level English, we studied Shakespeare (and not in a bastardised modern English version either !), Chaucer , Wordsworth, Keats…….. and we had to learn darn big chunks of them too. We all managed to do it and comment reasonably intelligently on the texts too.
    I really do fear for the future of education in this country. I have got my girls interested in and actively reading a huge variety of books; children need to be helped to expand their horizons.

    I have vivid memories of DoomHamster coming home from college with some English class handout, and telling me she had told the lecturer that he had made a grammatical mistake in it.
    He wasn`t too happy but I was proud that she had seen the error and stopped it being perpetuated by him……..LOL.

  2. Ian McNeilly says:

    I’ll try and be brief but might find myself rattling on and if so, apologies in advance.

    I’ve made a comment on readers’ reactions over at the Telegraph site but here’s a little reprise.

    Most people, including you David, have missed the point. Before the new programmes of study were drawn up, there was a list of recommended authors up to the age of 16. Although English teachers don’t really need the Government to draw up lists for them, this wasn’t so bad as ‘classic’ works and authors could be covered at GCSE level when mandated (and lower down the school according to children’s ability levels).

    Now they have been separated into 11-14 and 14-16. Now the requirement is to teach a whole text from one of the named authors to children in the first three years of secondary school. No problem with this at all – if the pupils are up to it.

    Off the top of my head in recent years I’ve taught Stevenson, Dickens and Chaucer to Year 7 (first years in old money), Wells and Blake to Year 8 as well as Hardy and Wordsworth to Year 9. I love classic literature and want my pupils to love it too.

    But this is not best achieved by forcing them through a text before they are ready. We are the best judges of when a child is ready to take on a text in the classroom, not fly-by-night politicians who won’t even be in office when teachers are having to fulfil this inconceived plan.

    The government, on one hand, want us to deal with the basic literacy problems that many young people have. And they want us to do it via Eliot and Rossetti? What about those poor kids working towards level 3 or the many children with English as a second language?

    Yes, there are ‘ways round it’…but surely that isn’t the point and the children won’t be truly engaging with the texts as desired. They should be encouraged to enjoy reading through texts which are accessible to them and move on to more challenging ones. Pupils (and people in general, I find) need stretching – not overstretching.

    By the way, with the 14-16 year olds of late I’ve taught Steinbeck, Dickens, Clare, etc. Surely the job of an English teacher (never mind ‘functionality’, etc) is to try and nurture a love of literature, not strangle it at birth and put people off for years…or even forever.

    I’d like some kind of response on this please, David, even if it’s in a personal email. I feel once again someone who’s got the wrong end of the stick is running the profession down.

    Told you I’d rattle on.

  3. Dave says:

    Ian,

    I would agree with everything you say here, which is different from the way your comments were reported in the press. Of course the way they are reported are much more eye-catching for an outraged Middle England. Of course I find the outrageous things in the press and find the most inflammatory bits.

    That being said, the bits quoted from Ian Brinton are a bit concerning. Your list of the authors you have taught contrasts with his statement that he would be surprised if any of the classic authors are taught at KS3.

    I had planned to make discreet enquiries with the English Dept at my school, just to get more solid information.

    I would not want to take away from the autonomy of teachers in the classroom. (I’m fortunate at this time that there is no National Curriculum in RE and the Agreed Syllabus is open to fairly wide interpretation.) In principle I’m opposed to any government intervention. I think the more the government is involved the worse education gets.

    I apologise for any offense cause, especially in any way your views were mischaracterised.

  4. Ian McNeilly says:

    Thanks, David. Surprisingly, when I give people the accurate picture, even ‘Middle England’ seems to agree…or at least shuts up (no one bothered/had the decency to reply to my views on the Telegraph site after most of them gave me/teachers a kicking.

    All the best.

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