Battles still to be fought

13th October 1995 at 01:00
Diane Hofkins finds Brian Cox continuing the fight for the English curriculum that bears his name

Brian Cox has moved on. In retirement he has thrown himself with enthusiasm into the world of the arts, as chairman of North West Arts and of the Arvon Foundation for creative writing, and left behind Manchester University, where he was professor of English literature. He talks of theatre and exhibitions, of his forthcoming role on the Arts Council, which he expects to join in 1996.

But then, he hasn't left the past behind at all. He is still fighting for the English curriculum that bears his name, even though it officially went out of use this month, to be replaced with Sir Ron Dearing's final, altered, slimline version.

In his new book, Cox on the Battle for the English Curriculum (see TES English Extra, September 22), he details that dark period of the early 1990s when Mrs Thatcher packed the education quangos with right-wingers determined to rewrite his 1989 concensus curriculum into a version promoting their own vision of the English language, and England itself.

"The National Curriculum Council group who took over the English curriculum, " writes Professor Cox, "was deeply afraid of modern society, trapped in fantasies of a lost golden age of Victorian childhood, and desperate to prevent young children today from being subjected to the realities of the modern world."

Since then the battle for the English curriculum has been both won and lost. The "curriculum for little England", as Professor Cox called it, was published in April 1993, and since then has gone through so much chopping and changing, tweaking and pulling, through a political tug of war and then Dearing's diet, that some people now think it is not very different from Cox, and many think it's fine.

For Professor Cox himself, the battle may be lost, but not the war. He sees the new curriculum as "a non-event", and says: "If you talk to most teachers now, they don't find it of much importance."

In the introduction to The Battle for the English Curriculum, he writes: "For the many reasons set out in this bookIthe 1989 English curriculum should remain the teaching blueprint for teachers of English: the 1995 curriculum does not prevent this".

He is not kind to the new curriculum. "The reduction in length means that we often end up with vague generalisations, cliches and platitudes. The document is inert in style and overly abstract. There is no sense of the delight and verve and energy that should characterise writings about English language and literature."

He finds the new level descriptions, which teachers are supposed to use in assessing their pupils "wooden and often gloriously imprecise." Among the examples he gives of failure to show progression is the one for punctuation at levels 7 and 8 (bright 14-year-olds): Level 7: "Paragraphing and correct punctuation are used to make the sequence of events or ideas coherent and clear to the reader."

Level 8: "Writing shows a clear grasp of the use of punctuation and paragraphing."

His working group, he points out, admitted it was impossible to define progression with regard to punctuation at this level.

Further reasons for using the old curriculum are contained in his 1991 book, Cox on Cox, which sets out the carefully developed and detailed rationale behind it. At that time, he was already having to defend his fledgling curriculum, which was instantly disliked by ministers. "Conservative politicians were over-confident that they knew the right policies, and to a large extent were contemptuous towards the professional teacher", he wrote.

But this is all in the past, some will say. Why does Brian Cox keep going on about this old stuff? Aren't things are better now? Isn't it just sour grapes? And isn't he naive to expect politicians to do anything other than to pursue their ideologies?

Clearly, Brian Cox identifies strongly with his curriculum, and takes it personally that his work has been tossed out.

But it is more than that. The Battle for the English Curriculum details in less than 200 pages the travesties of democracy, the refusal to listen, the secrecy and the arrogance which led to years of turmoil and confusion, which are still not over. The crime for him was that early signs of improvement were halted once it was known the curriculum would be changed, and good will wilfully lost. It is only now that there will be some stability.

It all happened, of course, because the Tories thought Brian Cox was a safe pair of hands to be trusted to deliver a conservative English curriculum. Instead, he "went native". An author of the right-wing Black Papers of the 1960s, who attacked comprehensive schools, he now says, "Teaching is better today than it's ever been."

Interestingly, he could easily have been another little Englander. He is passionate about literature, having discovered as a child the ability to escape the painful circumstances of his life through books: his mother died of tuberculosis when he was 10. He wants children to have the same delight in books - but he does not insist that they be the same books. He wants them to experience the joy of discovery.

Cox on The Battle for the English Curriculum, Hodder and Stoughton Pounds 12.99

BRIAN COX LISTS 10 FEATURES WHICH SHOULD BE AT THE CENTRE OF THE ENGLISH CURRICULUM. They include: * Teachers themselves should write and when appropriate show their work to pupils * There should be a strong commitment to drama in the classroom, and to high standards of speaking and listening * The Language in the National Curriculum in-service project should be revived and funded by the Government * Texts should be chosen from a variety of genres * Teachers should be free to choose texts they and their pupils enjoy * Radio, TV, film and video should be studied in the classroom

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