Subversive texts

Peter Hollindale

COX ON THE BATTLE FOR THE ENGLISH CURRICULUM. By Brian Cox. Hodder Stoughton Pounds 12.99. - 0 340 63938 5.

DEVELOPING LANGUAGE AND LITERACY. Edited by Bridie Raban-Bisby with Greg Brooks and Sheila Wolfendale. Trentham Books Pounds 14.95. - 1 85856 036 5.

TOWARDS 2000: THE FUTURE OF CHILDHOOD, LITERACY AND SCHOOLING. Edited by Ed Marum. The Falmer Press Pounds 13.95. - 0 7507 0421 7

Peter Hollindale charts the history of the English curriculum, a story of nostalgia, prejudice and systematic rejection of the experts.

A few weeks ago John Major informed The Times, "There is a feeling in the country that we listen too much to the experts and too little to ordinary people. Now the people with the facts tend to sound sharper, but the people with the instincts are often wiser. We ought to pay more attention to instincts."

Nothing could more clearly demonstrate the populist sentimentality and incorrigible anti-intellectualism which account for the Prime Minister's own invincible mediocrity. It explains the mess which his government has made of education, where these derided experts and people with facts exist in great numbers.

"Ignorance is wisdom" is the neo-Orwellian precept on which the Government has acted for some years, and Mr Major's answer to his problems is to plumb the depths of ordinariness still further.

Brian Cox's reaction to this statement can only be guessed at. In 1991 he published Cox on Cox, an authorised version of the Cox proposals for national curriculum English at the time when they first fell victim to ministerial interference and duplicity. Unfortunately, that was only the beginning of a systematic political attack on the original excellent proposals, which led to Cox himself being sidelined in the official process of designing the curriculum, and replaced along with his regrettably expert colleagues by a motley collection of right-wing government appointees which has graced, and disgraced, the politicised quangos of the National Curriculum Council, the School Examinations and Assessment Council, and latterly the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority.

In Cox on the Battle for the English Curriculum, he updates the history of events since 1991, which have finally left us with Sir Ron Dearing's slimmed-down curriculum, introduced this month. The story is one of systematic rejection of the experts, disregard of facts, indulgence of prejudice, nostalgia and instinct, and such hospitable concern for ordinariness that it has even given an ear to the Campaign for Real Education.

Cox's account of this deplorable episode is wholly admirable, and every English teacher should read it. Underneath it all, I suspect he is very angry, and he has good cause to be. But he presents his case with the studied clarity of one who can scarcely believe in the undemocratic perfidy which has made the exercise necessary.

It is worth pointing out some of the qualities of Cox's book. He is clear and logical. He respects evidence, research, and professional consultation. He shows confidence in the intelligence of teachers and the general public who will read him. When he has changed his mind in the light of experience, and now thinks his own ideas and curriculum proposals were deficient, he says so. He is expert on the subject of English, and quite obviously loves it - so much so that he thinks English teachers should be writers, just as music teachers are customarily musicians.

He practises what he preaches. Without compromising his love of inherited literature, he recognises the inevitable process by which all languages, including English, change, and he brings the media of film and television within the boundaries of English with evident pleasure and no sacrifice of standards. And he cares passionately that children should have this world of English opened to them in ways that will give them lasting skill and pleasure.

I mention these qualities because every one is missing in those ordinary, fact-free, instinctive people in the Cabinet and the quangos who have messed up the English curriculum since his departure.

In their different ways, Developing Language and Literacy and Towards 2000 are invaluable supporting texts. Cox points out that the September 1995 curriculum does restore to teachers a good deal of the freedom they had lost. Much depends on what happens to the procedures for assessment and especially the status of coursework, which Sir Ron proposed to raise from 40 per cent to 50 per cent, only to be vetoed by John Major, a wise and instinctive educationist.

Towards 2000 reviews the controversy from a more radical perspective than Cox's, and concludes with a reckless exercise in educational crystal-gazing which does little for the volume's credibility, but the central chapters present some practical stratagems for exploiting the new freedoms. So crazy is the recent climate that constructive professional discussion is made to sound like wicked left-wing plotting.

In Developing Language and Literacy, Bridie Raban-Bisby (who directed the Warwick research into national curriculum English which the Government commissioned and misused) addresses just this point. The slimmed-down Dearing curriculum, she declares, "has offered the opportunity to reconstruct the teaching of English in England and Wales and enter it into schools subversively".

Professor Raban-Bisby has special insights into recent events, so her chapter "The state of English in the state of England" is intelligent and authoritative, a significant document to place alongside Cox.

All the same, this is not the moment for adroit subversion. It is the moment for the professional community of English teachers to reclaim lost ground in the interests of our children, and reassert the wisdom of the expert. What have we come to when apolitical effective English teaching can be thought of as subversive?

Peter Hollindale is a senior lecturer in English and Educational Studies at the University of York

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