Ditch Angela's ashes to regain paradise

19th December 2003 at 00:00
English teaching must aim much higher than servicing other subjects if our heritage is notto be lost, argues David Cockburn

Those who have to "fix" Higher English for the future must be identifying with Canute. We need to go back to first principles and ask why we bother teaching English in secondary schools. After all, we don't teach it as a subject in primary schools - it merely services other subjects. The same, I believe, is in danger of happening in secondaries.

It could be argued that teachers of physics, geography, history, and home economics can easily teach the kind of essay writing (vocabulary, sentence structure, register) that they require; therefore, what need for English teachers? English becomes a kind of service subject, about as valuable as a set of instructions.

Is this the ineluctable result of reducing it all to "reading", "writing" and "talk" (as Standard grade does) without being clear exactly what we mean by any of these terms? Is the collapse of Higher, which used to have around it a kind of intellectual firewall, caused by the final, corrosive invasion of Standard-grade thinking into everything?

When English is reduced to "communication", when literature becomes "reading" and when we start to believe we can measure talk, then the illness is terminal. That there has been an attempt to redress some of those changes is an indication that someone, somewhere has recognised the disease. Any further attempts at change will be merely tinkering.

Back to my question: why are we teaching English? What makes it a subject? The answer should be, self-evidently, literature, but sadly it self-evidently isn't. Standard grade does not recognise literature: it calls it "reading", but that jejune term confuses process with the substance. I maintain that we should teach literature - books, plays, novels, poems, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, the great heritage that we have abandoned in favour of the animal project and the granny project. This attitude pervades the English curriculum.

Shakespeare has been usurped by a Willy Russell comedy. The novel has been reduced to potted sociology. Stephen King reigns and Angela's ashes are everywhere. And no one much bothers about poetry now. All that matters is that they get through Standard grade, though of course everyone does that, and there is continual improvement at Higher . . . though, awkwardly, there isn't.

Where have we gone wrong? The answer is really quite simple: education has become so obsessed with measuring outcomes that we have stopped bothering about the quality of the input. Indeed, the more simplistic the input, the greater chance of success - that is, measurable success. It's not what we teach that matters, it's whether it can be assessed that counts.

That's why there is such emphasis on worksheets and writing projects, as they produce measurable outcomes. Ask anyone in S1 or S2: it's almost certain they'll have done no Shakespeare and inevitable that they will have produced endless screeds of probably ill-punctuated writing.

The problem is that everybody is judged by the results of these assessable outcomes: pupils, teachers, the school. Hence we have to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator and therefore literature, inspiration, intellectual curiosity, the greatest thinking of this and previous eras is all reduced to reading, writing and talk. Shallowness is all. It's what the drossy age dotes on.

We need to abandon Standard grade which, in any case, has long since outlived its use-by date. Have a leavers' assessment by all means, but ditch the idea of certificates for all at the end of S4. That will give teachers adequate time to devote to Higher and, with the one-dimensional strictures of Standard grade disposed of, teachers could concentrate on the kind of quality course with which we could present our pupils.

Literature has also to be re-established at the very heart of the curriculum and has to have a coherent approach to its study. We need to encourage language development in interesting, novel and challenging ways.

We are witnessing the English language develop at an unprecedented rate, where words for the first time in our history are entering the language in the written mode (rather than the spoken one) by text messaging and emails - and then spread within 24 hours throughout the globe. It's the most powerful language in the world, and fundamental to the thinking process.

The powers that be would do well to learn from King Canute, though this time the tide is more than just flowing: there is a sea change out there that could yet swamp us all.

David Cockburn was principal examiner for Higher English from 1984-1992.

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