Stalin's Academy of English

The important thing is that young children learn to read books for enjoyment, not that boxes are ticked or not ticked, says John McDougall

OFTEN, when I see or hear pupils read, it seems that written English of any sophistication is as foreign to them as, say, German is to me. We have similar problems. We struggle with subordinate clauses and other features of syntax; and most of all we struggle with vocabulary. Individual words may look familiar and may yield their meaning if we spend long enough on them; but if, through sentence after sentence, we find we are decoding words at a snail's pace, the process becomes overwhelming and we give up.

Is literacy improving or deteriorating? Social factors, like the erosion of family life, the dominance of television, the siren call, especially to boys, of computer games, are easy to agree upon. More controversial, however, is the suggestion that the education system itself doesn't do what it could.

Universities Scotland has already underlined leavers' difficulties with grammar and punctuation. "The underlying problem," it states, "is that schools are being driven too much by league tables and that teachers are teaching to the test."

In fact, Universities Scotland is probably too polite. When teachers have prescribed for them in minute detail what they are supposed to achieve, when they are pressurised to meet, or appear to meet, a battery of statistics, when, in short, they are given far too much to do, it is hardly surprising if they cannot focus on what is good for each pupil who comes in front of them.

No time can be more critical for this than primary school, and yet the most cursory of glances at the multiplicity of strands in the multiplicity of 5-14 documents would suggest that Quintilian himself couldn't organise such a curriculum satisfactorily.

Even taken by itself, English Language 5-14 is unrealistic. As is so often the case, the authors have confused what is essential with what is desirable. Primary teachers are expected to bear in mind that, when reading, pupils should "discuss an author's style . . . character depiction . . . vocabulary choice" or should use "syllable, root, stem, prefix and suffix . . . in discussion which centres on individual words, their origins, meanings and functions"? Desirable, yes. But essential, when children can hardly decode enough words to read fluently?

If we ask how we reached such a prescriptive, restrictive condition, I would suggest one simple answer: bureaucracy, rule by people who work in offices. Education today is eerily reminiscent of economic planning in the Stalinist Soviet Union, when people who made only an occasional official visit to farm or factory drew up detailed lists of targets and - lo! - targets were met, although the farms and factories were ever less productive.

Did Uncle Joe have it right, that the citizen exists for the state, or was Aristotle correct, that the relationship should be the other way round? The Scottish Executive contends that the purpose of education is to "prepare young people for a creative and productive working life", something the Catholic Education Commission quite reasonably dismisses as "merely utilitarian". The purpose of education must be more than the pursuit of economic success. Aristotle must be right. The purpose of education must be the good of the individual.

So we have to change the discourse. Let us tell our politicians that the bureaucratic definition of "quality education" isn't what we want. We want our children to be happy, and that surely includes the requirement that, when they are six, they learn to read books for enjoyment. When they are 56, whatever boxes were ticked or not ticked all those years ago, they will still have that possession for ever.

John McDougall is principal teacher of classics and computing in Dunoon Grammar.

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