A tale full of sound and fury

28th February 2003 at 00:00
Even Prince Charles is caught up in the tempest raging around the teaching of English. Nicholas Pyke reports.

Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely 24 grinders, four eye-teeth, and 12 incisive. So goes the reply from star pupil Bitzer in the opening to Hard Times. This famously detailed but meaningless description of a horse will be close to the hearts of two of the factions battling over how English is taught.

The first, and vocal, camp are the traditionalists, led by Prince Charles.

He believes that there is not enough Dickens or Keats or Shakespeare taught in the classroom. In a recent article for the Royal Society of Literature, he attacks the focus on the "exclusively contemporary" and "immediately palatable". Our literary heritage, Hard Times and all, has been neglected.

English teachers, meanwhile, take a very different line on Thomas Gradgrind's academy, where Bitzer spits out his definitions learnt by rote: they think they are teaching in it. For them the chief worry is not a shortage of pre-20th-century writing, but a lack of time to teach any literature at all in depth. Dickens' grotesque parody of utilitarian education has become all too real. At its worst, they say, the regime of strategies, targets, tests and league tables is teaching pupils to jump through hoops of spelling and grammar, with no time to learn how to appreciate imaginative writing.

Whatever English teachers think of the traditionalists, the latter are certainly influential, particularly outside the classroom. Prince Charles, who has set up an annual Shakespeare school as well as holding a conference last autumn for English and history teachers, is backed by Chris Woodhead, former chief inspector and sometime adviser at Highgrove: both think the curriculum neglects great literature of the past.

Trying to set policy in this fractious atmosphere are ministers, who have already got into trouble over Shakespeare. Earlier this month, Charles Clarke was forced to order an inquiry into what many saw as a dumbing down of English Shakespeare tests at key stage 3.

The message for ministers is clear: do not mess with the big S. According to former head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Professor David Hargreaves, politicians lose "any grasp of common sense" when the Bard crops up.

Is the heritage lobby right about the lack of early literature? In many schools there is probably more pre-20th-century literature on the 11 to 13 curriculum now than at any time in the past 30 years, thanks to the Shakespeare test at age 14. Whether it is taught in anything other than bite-sized chunks is a different matter.

Today's exam papers at GCSE and A-level certainly involve less compulsory Shakespeare and poetry than the old O-level . But O-level was not available to the majority of pupils. Instead they took CSE courses with a diet of Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies and Kes - books still taught today. A-level has remained largely unchanged.

English teachers in such schools might say that what is suitable for top private schools, which have the advantage of academic selection and freedom from time-consuming curriculum tests, is not always appropriate for comprehensives with a greater range of pupils.

In any case, they say, the argument about the precise proportions of pre-20th-century literature is a sideshow. Far more important is the fact that the Government's approach stops literature from any period being read seriously, and in depth.

"There's a limit to what you can achieve with a target-driven curriculum," says Trevor Millum, communications and development director at the National Association for the Teaching of English. "I think there's an honest desire to embrace creativity on the part of ministers, but a lack of knowledge about how to do that."

There is little doubt that the Government wants to give secondary English teachers more freedom, and recognises that this can bring benefits. For example, teachers would get the space to try fresh ways of tackling Shakespeare with pupils who usually struggle.

Yet Mr Clarke and the Government remain committed to a model of English based on literacy skills and targets rather than one offering time or space to dwell on serious literature.

So the main conflict in English teaching is not, it seems, between those who love our heritage and those who want to do trendy, modern rubbish. It is between a view of the subject as a creative discipline and one which is mainly about a set of testable language skills.

Despite this, NATE, the main subject goup, remains fairly upbeat. After all, there are signs that the Government knows where the nettle is, even though it is yet to grasp it.

Speaking at last autumn's royal conference on English and history, David Normington, permanent secretary at the education department, appeared to commit the Government to a reduction in the test burden. David Hopkins, head of the standards and effectiveness unit, is meeting representatives from that conference this month. On a broader front, changes to the post-14 curriculum should allow staff more autonomy.

NATE is also keen to say that there is still plenty of good English teaching, even within the current constraints. The national curriculum, although not perfect, reflects a broad consensus about what the subject is, says Trevor Millum.

And there have been important gains, too, not least because there was much bad teaching in the past. That old, pre-national curriculum model of the teacher free to explore the language in whatever way he or she liked led to some inspiring classes but also to unfocused ones in which pupils learned little. Members of NATE even appear to back the Government's literacy strategies, wholeheartedly endorsing them at a recent association conference. So far, so optimistic. But there are other, more worrying views of the subject suggesting that it has been seriously damaged over the past decade.

Dr Bethan Marshall, lecturer in education and English at King's College London, is author of English Teachers: The Unofficial Guide. She believes that the Government's curriculum advisers have given up trying to get a serious response to literature from students.

"Any book, play, poem or article is turned into a grammar primer as texts are trawled for some rule of punctuation or example of a subordinate clause," she says. The subject as encountered in the modern classroom is now "more about language skills than it is about English as an art".

And members of the English Association - a smaller group that includes more academics and private school teachers than NATE - agrees that there is now little room to communicate a love of literature. Even Anne Barnes, former general secretary of NATE, says the business of teaching English has become "dreary", dominated by a hoop-jumping regime of tests. To get through the national curriculum, children are forced to read too little too quickly.

As a result, a different sort of teacher is becoming attracted to the job - a type happier being told what to do. "You're getting people who look to have it laid out for them, who like a very clear structure and like quite a lot of supervision," she says. "It's depressing."

Letters, 24

set texts - past and present

O-level 1972 (Joint Matriculation Board)

Twelfth Night

A Man for All Seasons

Anthology including Gray, Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, De la Mare, Robert Frost, Edwin Muir.

Anthology including Larkin, Dylan Thomas, Betjeman, RS Thomas.

Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, Cider with Rosie, 1984, Pride and Prejudice.

GCSE 2002 (NEAB)

A Kestrel for a Knave, Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, The Go-Between, I'm the King of the Castle.

Anthologies including Wordsworth, RS Thomas, Keats, Frost, Hopkins, TS Eliot, Goldsmith,Shakespeare.

Anthology of modern poetry.

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