Canon of classics has backfired

16th February 2007 at 00:00
Hurrah for English teachers who this week told Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, that they weren't prepared to be dragooned into studying Charles Dickens and Jane Austen with their 11 to 14-year-olds.

Mr Johnson intervened to insist that classic authors were a vital ingredient in key stage 3 English lessons. And not just Dickens and Austen.

Coleridge and Pope were, improbably, in there too.

As one teacher said on the TES online staffroom forum: "Who chose these? Are they prepared to come and teach them to my bottom-set Year 7s?"

This isn't an argument about whether to ditch our literary heritage.

English teachers can and do teach older pupils the classics every week. The disagreement is about whether ploughing through Pride and Prejudice with 12-year-olds will put them off reading for life.

A minority will love it and the new personalised learning programmes will surely cater for them. For most, teachers have to strike a balance between introducing younger teenagers to the books the rest of us think they ought to read and motivating them to read anything at all. An extract from Oliver Twist may go down well; the whole book won't.

English teachers are right to insist that they know best and that they will carry on sharing with their pupils the novels they know they will enjoy.

Their colleagues in other subjects should emulate them. Teachers are so busy that they are tempted to knuckle down and do what the Government tells them. They have done a remarkable job in making many government policies work but they also need to assert themselves against those they know are mistaken.

Primary pupils have made progress in the past decade mainly because thousands of primary teachers have made the literacy hour work in ways ministers never dreamed of. All teachers should feel confident about following their professional instincts.

The late Ted Wragg described government education policies in his TES columns as "weapons of mass instruction". "It would not be so bad if telling teachers what to do actually worked," he wrote. "But it doesn't."

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