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Sounds of the Seventies

The QCA English teaching review could learn a lot by looking at the ways we worked in the era of disco, says Barbara Bleiman.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has started a "national conversation" about English. At its launch in February, Andrew Motion, Melvyn Bragg and others argued vociferously about what English should be: a vehicle for creativity, an education in literary heritage, a place for personal development or a training in basic skills.

The QCA has called for "blue skies thinking" and I'm all for it. Yet, as I try to think inventively about the future, I'm surprised how much my thinking is taking me back to when I first started teaching almost 30 years ago.

The 1970s were not perfect - far from it. The looseness of the system allowed too much slippage. Some children had brilliant experiences of English; others did not. There have been many benefits from a more determined focus on literacy.

But there were also great things happening then that do not happen so much now, which would help the children of 2015.

Here are three snapshots from my Seventies teaching album: 1) I'm teaching a group of mixed ability Year 8s (second years in those far off days). I ask how many are superstitious, how many believe in fate? We have a fascinating lesson in which I tell them stories from my life and they tell me their own.

We're not in a huge hurry - we have no exams to prepare for. This doesn't need to be consigned to a five-minute starter activity. They are "speaking and listening", in great chunks, even my naughtiest skinhead trio, with their bovver boots and National Front sympathies.

Next lesson we start reading Macbeth, at speed, with a bit of acting as we go, not worrying too much about the words but going for the story and the mood. (Isn't that what most theatre audiences do after all?) Over three or four weeks, my pupils do writing of their own, we stop from time to time to look closely at interesting bits and debate what on earth it's all about. And then we move on. What have I hoped to achieve? A first taste of a really exciting playwright, a chance to look closely at some fantastic language and a realisation among all my pupils that Shakespeare might be for them.

2) A different Year 8 group are writing novels. We've looked at structures, characters, plots. I've offered them a few suggested genres and titles. I tell them that, whatever the results, they will learn a huge amount about novels, about writing and about themselves. At the end of the half-term I look at what's been achieved. Not every novel written by my Year 8s is a work of genius but some are extraordinary, far better than I could have predicted. I learn that sometimes risks are worth taking.

3) I'm in my first year of teaching, in a school in Tottenham. The Year 10 class I've inherited includes a group of boys who think they're "thick". I need to find ways of making them think it's worth putting their energies into what would now be called "functional literacy".

My teacher education at the Institute of Education has equipped me well.

I've read Frank Smith on reading, Vygotsky on the relationship between language and thought, Bruner on how children learn and Paulo Freire on empowerment.

In my PGCE year I worked for a whole year one-to-one with a boy in a "remedial" class, discovering what might help him to make the leap towards literacy. And I've realised that it's a complex, challenging process with no easy answers.

I look for all the ways I can to praise the boys and offer them good reason to switch on rather than off. This partly involves finding texts that will really strike a chord. In my 1970s classroom I have the space to teach texts that aren't assessed, so I can provide a wide range of books to suit their needs.

Some are, of course, enthused by Shakespeare or Steinbeck, but others more so by the vibrant writing of other teenagers, published by local community publishing projects. The recognition that people like them have written and been published, is a powerful prompt towards literacy.

I also try to give the pupils every possible opportunity to shine, acknowledging their achievements and tackling difficulties. Skills worksheets play no part in this process, though skills are very much part of my agenda. A vital element in this is focusing on skills in the context of pupils' own writing and working closely with individuals on their own strengths and weaknesses, rather than always delivering the same message to the whole class.

These snapshots describe classroom experiences that are still possible now but all too often they are achieved by teachers bold enough to swim against the tide of objectives, targets and testing. New teachers, who only know the status quo, with a training in which opportunities for reflection and a theoretical underpinning of practice have been reduced, are understandably reluctant to take such risks.

The message, for me at least, is clear. In looking forwards, we must also look back and draw on the experience of good English teaching over many decades.

This doesn't mean romanticising the past, or reviving a whole set of bygone practices being negative about all recent reforms. But it does mean recognising that getting the things we want in the future - creativity, opportunities for extended writing, ways of teaching literacy that really work - may lie in re-examining the best of what happened in the past.

Barbara Bleiman is an advisory teacher at the English and Media Centre, London, and an ex-head of English at a sixth-form college

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