Colonic irritation

3rd March 2000 at 00:00
The National Literacy Strategy is deluging primary pupils with punctuation - from semi colons to demonstrative pronouns. Shame it is not going to work says secondary teacher Iain MacDonald.

I CAN'T remember precisely when I first set eyes on the National Literacy Strategy framework, but I recall that it was closely followed by a memo from my head. There was a governors' meeting that Wednesday and he was briefing them on the literacy strategy. How did I propose to prepare the department for the influx of super-literate Year 7s that the initiative promised to deliver? Drafting a response was a challenge. I considered something along the lines of "would local air traffic control or the head of PE object if the flying pigs landed on the playing fields?" - but thought better of it.

Like most of my secondary English colleagues, I wasn't sure how to respond to this New Labour, save-the-world-from-itself initiative. There was a problem to be addressed - no question of that. Each new Year 7 cohort would arrive with shiny shoes and new blazers, but much of the linguistic competence they had acquired at junior school appeared to have leached out over the summer break. And while nobody in the profession accepts the notion that children spend their primary years building egg-carton acropoli, we know the national curriculum, especially in its early form, put the squeeze on literacy.

But this is a literacy strategy and a half. Never mind paragraphing and forget sentence boundaries; it assures us we can have it all: semi-colons, connectives, adjectival phrases - you name it, it's got a place in the taxonomy of linguistic rectitude deliverable at a primary school near you. And students will start their secondary education, so the theory goes, able to parse sentences like your great uncle Ned; in control of their commas and confident about when to semi a colon - that's like "biggy-ing" your quarter-pounder with fries, a construction in use throughout the English-speaking world but unsurprisingly omitted from the blue-and-yellow binder.

Two initial thoughts struck me as I flicked through the breakdown of what is taught when and to whom. First, the whole thing is absurdly over-ambitious. Who seriously believes that such a vast and exhaustive range of rules (all bedevilled by exceptions) and concepts (many lodged in A-level language syllabuses) will be absorbed in any meaningful way by junior schoolchildren?

No doubt there is room for formal grammar teaching in the English curriculum, but it needs to be administered little and often. A handful of basic concepts, regularly reinforced across the curriculum, will make a difference. The strategy's if-its-Tuesday-it-must-be-Begium approach will do little more than equip students with a wider range of punctuation marks to confuse and misapply, while placing a weighty burden on primary literacy co-ordinators.

Second, the strategy's framework drives a coach and horses through the national curriculum's English Order; the semi-colon is but one example. The statutory English curriculum for key stages 3 and 4 lays down that this punctuation mark should be taught in the secondary phase. But the framework has seen fit to bring it forward to Year 6. It seems extraordinary that the Department for Education and Employment's cavalier disregard for the rules should pass virtually without comment.

This is not simply professional jealousy on my part. Frankly, if primary colleagues want the semi-colon, they're welcome to it, along with the possessive apostrophe, direct speech and demonstrative pronouns. The majority of English teachers would be only too delighted to return to an issues and literature-based curriculum. In fact, I begin to see advantages in this. Perhaps grammatical rules, by their very nature, appeal more to nine-year-olds than they do to adolescents. Perhaps they have more chance of being retained when the vessel into which the Gradgrindian volume of facts has been poured isn't carted off to PE or chemistry, not to be seen again till the following Tuesday.

Perhaps. But last autumn's intake did nothing to challenge the cynicism of those who predicted there would be little change in the linguistic capabilities of Year 7 students. So far as I know, this has not prompted any drastic re-thinking on the Government's part. On the contrary, it remains wedded to the dubious shibboleth that national test results are an accurate indicator of value added, and the 1999 key stage 2 results in English gave cause for optimism - to the Government, that is - though I suspect the primary teachers who did the graft are reserving judgment on that one.

The upshot of all this is that, following a face-lift for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's version of the English Order, the strategy, arguably the real national curriculum for English, is on its way to secondary schools.

That which once occupied a place on the horizon of the secondary English teacher, akin to the Old Testament's cloud the size of a man's hand, has now assumed the more solid characteristics of a slow train coming. If that sounds like a mixed metaphor, you can confirm your suspicion by referring to Year 5, term two, of the blue-and-yellow binder - where metaphors are dealt with. Or you can try asking the nearest 10-year-old.

Iain MacDonald is head of English in a West Midlands

comprehensive school

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