Controversy comes to a full stop

11th November 1994 at 00:00
A thorn in the flesh of the English curriculum debate has finally been pulled out. The compromise reached on the controversial subject of Standard English should please more teachers than before, though no doubt not all.

The draft Order, which was peppered with references to Standard English, angered many teachers who wanted more emphasis on linguistic diversity. In the new Order Standard English appears to have been put in its place.

Sue Horner, an English officer with the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA), said: "We have cut out the repetition of Standard English. It is a firm requirement but it is not seeping out all over the place and interfering in places where it need not be."

More than half the teachers who responded to the consultation exercise on the draft Order conducted over the summer objected to the emphasis on correctness, Standard English and grammar. SCAA has tried to satisfy its critics by saying at key stage 1: "Pupils should be introduced with appropriate sensitivity to the importance of Standard English. Pupils should be given opportunities to consider their own speech and how they communicate with others, particularly in more formal situations or with unfamiliar adults." References to grammar have also been revised, reordered or clarified.

All this appears to be a significant move away from former National Curriculum Council chairman David Pascall's belief that Standard English should be spoken in the playground and on the football terraces. In fact, SCAA has moved on most of the controversial issues in the draft English proposals - not only Standard English, but the "literary" canon, media and drama, early writing, and information technology.

The canon of 20th-century literature has been dropped, although the mandatory lists of pre-20th century authors have been retained. Teachers still have to choose two works of fiction from a list of authors and poems by four major poets published before 1900 at key stages 3 and 4. But for 20th-century literature, there is an exemplary list of 12 well-established authors: poets TS Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, RS Thomas, and WB Yeats; and, for the novelists, William Golding, Graham Greene, James Joyce, DH Lawrence and Muriel Spark (the only woman in the modern lists).

More than half of the respondents in the consultation exercise thought the mandatory lists at key stages 3 and 4 were too prescriptive. SCAA says there can be no doubt that the authors on the pre-20th century lists have earned their place, but there is less consensus about the standing of many modern books and authors.

The suggested list of literature at key stages 1 and 2 has been dropped on the grounds that works for children of this age date quickly. However, the emphasis on the need for primary children to read a range of works remains.

Ironically, despite teachers' unhappiness with prescriptive lists, some were offended by the absence of a canon of dramatists because this suggested that drama lacked status. So, at key stages 3 and 4, SCAA has added to the compulsory reading of two Shakespeare plays an exemplary list of four major playwrights: Christopher Marlowe, JB Priestley, George Bernard Shaw and RB Sheridan. One obvious criticism is the absence of any modern playwrights, but as the list is only exemplary, many teachers may not wish to make an issue of that.

Teachers in Wales, however, are likely to be very disappointed. They argued against prescription per se and wanted special recognition for Wales. Although the Order says Welsh pupils should read works that have a special relevance to their country, teachers across the border have been forced to toe the English line.

References to media studies, drama and information technology have been strengthened or inserted in the new Order in response to criticism that these subjects were not given enough status in the draft proposals. And teachers looking forward to a statement on bilingual children, which would recognise their special skills, will be pleased that the new Order says: "The richness of dialects and other languages can make an important contribution to pupils' knowledge and understanding of Standard English. Where appropriate, pupils should be encouraged to make use of their understanding and skills in other languages when learning English."

SCAA has attempted to end the row about the full stop in the Writing attainment target at key stage 1, level 1. Many teachers thought mastering the full stop was too difficult for seven-year-olds but SCAA had stressed the importance of stretching pupils and setting high standards.

The compromise level description now reads: "Pupils' writing communicates meaning through simple words and phrases. In their reading or their writing, pupils begin to show awareness of how full stops are used. Letters are usually clearly shaped and correctly orientated." The previous version said pupils should identify where full stops are needed in their own writing, which was arguably more difficult than the level 2 requirement.

In addition, cursive or joined-up writing is no longer part of the level 2 description. And, in response to the criticism that there was too much phonics at key stages 1 and 2, the Order has been reworded to made it clear that phonics, though essential, should be used within a balanced programme which includes word recognition skills.

Commenting on the Order, Sue Horner said: "Teachers may find that in thinking about overall plans they will not have to make major changes." However, she added that the requirement for classic literature at key stage 2 may add to some English departments' work. She hopes SCAA and teachers can now concentrate on assessment - a thorn that has yet to be pulled.

At key stage 4, the Order will have to work in conjunction with vocational core skills and advisers are working to ensure this happens.

Key changes from the current Order.

* one attainment target (AT) on writing which incorporates the previous ATs for spelling and handwriting; * reorganisation of material to make connections across sections on speaking and listening, writing, and reading; * language study has been rationalised.

Key changes from draft proposals * references to Standard English rationalised; * new reference to significance of pupils' understanding of other languages when learning English; * sections of programmes of study reordered to help teachers plan how to develop skills; * exemplary reading lists at key stages 1 and 2 scrapped although categories of fiction and non-fiction have beenspecified; * post-1900 canon at key stages 3 and 4 scrapped but pre-1900 list of authors and poets retained; * new exemplary list of four dramatists; * references to media studies, drama and information technology strengthened; * phonics clarified to emphasise their place as part of balanced programme of reading strategies, with increased emphasis on word recognition; * watering down of the requirement to understand full stops at KS1, level 1.

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