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A paean to prose and poesy

Geoff Bartonis headteacher at King Edward VI school in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

Let's be honest, we do like to whip ourselves up into a frenzy now and then about falling standards, increased crime and surveillance. And nothing gets us going more than surveys that tell us we're not as good as the folk next door. The other week, the UK's teens were labelled worst in the world.

Hooded, raddled by booze, cigarettes and drugs, they fail to live up to the standards of the French and Italians. Only the dissolute youth of Denmark can beat us in the binge-drinking league tables.

With so much venting of spleen, it can be hard to identify the important issues. Here's one that isn't trivial: the growing evidence that something is going badly wrong in the way we teach English. It isn't just that progress towards national targets has stalled. It's as if we're squeezing the life out of our most important subject.

Take Ofsted's report on three studies on English published a year ago. The 2003 Progress in International Reading Literacy study found that "although the reading skills of 10-year-old pupils in England compared well with those of pupils in other countries, they are less interested in reading than those elsewhere". Another study, conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research, concluded that "children's enjoyment of reading had declined significantly in recent years", while a NestleMORI report highlighted the existence of "a small core of children who do not read at all, described as an 'underclass' of non-readers".

One hundred years ago, the English Association was founded to further the knowledge, understanding and enjoyment of English language and literature, and to foster good practice in its teaching and learning. In 1922, school inspector and writer George Sampson complained that the fledgling subject was seen solely as something to be "examined, tested, marked". The obsession with testing endures. It has led to a narrowing of the curriculum and a loss of confidence among teachers in how to spark youngsters'

interest in the subject. In the internet age, with global competition for jobs, we can't afford to have a generation without critical reading skills or passion for literature. A feel for language that goes beyond the purely mechanical was never more vital.

That's why Sue Palmer, Peter Barry and I have written a pamphlet to mark the English Association's centenary. It's not just another whinge-fest, but an objective look at the state of English in primary, secondary and higher education. It is also a plea to scrap micro-control of the curriculum and re-ignite creativity in English teaching. We believe it is a debate that we cannot afford not to have.

"One hundred years of English teaching" is available at

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