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Harking back to a more Ordered life in English

If peace now reigns in the English War and the new Order is a treaty (TES, February 10) it may be that the only winners are the teachers who dug their heels in and always said "no".

Most English teachers found delivering the national curriculum difficult. We would joke about candidates who were definitely level 7a, b and d on EN1 at key stage 4, but how could we improve 7c, and so on? And if you had a level 9 at key stage 3, what would you do with him for the two years until key stage 4, when a level 9 was a B at what we still thought of as GCSE?

It was difficult, but worthwhile. What you had done - or not - was extremely clear to anyone who cared to look. All those grids and boxes pinned you down and gave you a migraine; but they provided detailed profiles of work covered and how, for each and every pupil in age groups whose English teaching hitherto was quite possibly in a benign fog.

No matter how brilliant we all were, who will deny that we worked harder in the examination classes? For GCSE or A-level, you had to produce the goods. That was life. But even specialists relaxed in junior classes. I lived through such a system - third-form English for me was P G Wodehouse, read aloud by my teacher, who said teaching the sixth form exhausted him. By the fourth year, we were a motley crew with hugely differing experiences of what English was. While we had Wodehouse, next door they studied Macbeth and a third group slaved over clause analysis. So much for laissez-faire.

As a head of English in pre-national curriculum days, I fought battles over who could or would teach English in the junior forms. I said it was a specialist's job; the head said he had staff timetables to fill. If it really didn't matter what you taught, then it couldn't matter who - to be English was enough, and American or Australian was just as good. Some were brilliant, but they proved the point - anyone could teach English. The national curriculum put a stop to that.

It forced us to pay attention to what went on in the junior forms, to focus on them in planning and provision, to organise work more clearly and carefully. This was entirely right and proper, not to mention high time. How dared we assume that anything would do because there was no external examination constraint? And how cowardly of us to run screaming from the bogey that was testing at 13.

The new Orders look suspiciously watered down, and that, of course, is a consequence of the battle waged against the massive detail of the originals. When it says "in the course of key stages 3 and 4, pupils' reading should includeI" and then lists writers who are either statutory or non-statutory with very little apparent rhyme or reason - well, where would you put Shaw or Henry James? - then those who don't want to be told what they must do, have won. They have five years to do a lot of what they like. Worse still is the chilling statement that "some texts should be studied in detail, but the main emphasis should be on the encouragement of wider reading in order to develop independent, responsive and enthusiastic readers". Perhaps that way anarchy lies.

As we applaud the peace, let us not forget that the national curriculum actually offered us the chance to serve in a just war. And the cause was English itself - what it was, how it should be taught, and when and by whom.

If the new Order allows us to retreat then we have been betrayed by officers who decided the battle was not worth the upset to the troops. If that is the case, then we are all the losers, and the only winners are the teachers who stayed gallantly in the trenches and refused to follow Orders.

Hilary Moriarty is a former head of English, now a deputy head in the West country

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