Don't Gradgrind them down
Edited by Brian Cox.
Book Trust Manchester University Press, #163;9.99
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"Literature," wrote Margaret Meek some years ago, "is clearly literate activity that can bring everyone a fuller enjoyment of life, beyond usefulness, beyond, even, the worthy notion that it is nourishment that makes us grow. It is its own kind of deep play."
In her chapter in this book, sponsored by the Book Trust to support the National Year of Reading, she gives another forceful statement of the same view: "Literacy is too important to be taught as, or to serve as, an instrumental commodity."
This is not a view likely to find much favour with Tony Blair, David Blunkett or their officials. Over the past two years we have seen another attempt by ministers to fashion English in their own image. A few years ago, under the Conservatives, the driving force for encroachment on teachers' professionalism was British (mainly English) nationalism and the cultural heritage, backed up by grammar and Standard English. Now, under New Labour, it is a new form of "back to basics": the over-precise, over-detailed, mechanistic programme for basic, functional literacy, summed up for primary schools in the Framework for Literacy and the literacy hour. Its aim is to provide pupils with the utilitarian skills for a technological future.
As several contributors to this book point out, it is not the aim which is wrong. In his foreword, Brian Cox welcomes "the determination to improve basic standards of literacy, to provide young people with the skills needed for work", while simultaneously hoping that the Gov-ernment will accept that "its policy on the teaching of reading is too prescriptive, authoritarian and mechanistic".
Everyone knows how important basic literacy is. But the argument underlying many contributions to this collection is that other, more developed forms of literacy not only matter just as much, but actually assist the development of functional literacy rather than providing (as the politicians murkily suspect) a sloppy alternative to it.
Bethan Marshall, in an excellent chapter which effectively introduces the section written specifically by and for teachers, reminds us of the 1989 Cox Report, and the reason for its status as the lost leader, the great might-have-been of modern English teaching. (At the same time, Brian Cox's presence as editor of this constructive and thought-provoking collection is a cheering reminder that he has not given up the fight.) The Cox Report listed five different views of the subject - cultural heritage, adult need,cross curricular, personal growth and cultural analysis - and trusted teachers to improve their practice within these categories. Bethan Marshall points out the divergence of priorities between teachers and politicians which led to the report's being put aside. Of the Blunkett model for "adult needs", she remarks that: "The bleak spectre of utilitarianism hangs over our schools like a pall. " More than one writer mentions Thomas Gradgrind and Hard Times.
When you read Henrietta Dombey's searching analysis of the Literacy Framework, its rigidities are evident. She complains, as other contributors do, that governments ignore or omit research, so that good and dubious practices are curiously mixed. For example, she reports the narrowness of a teacher's permissible agenda. "If the teacher's focus is on sentence structure, the children should not be allowed to deviate from this, no matter if a child makes a challenging observation on the text . . . perhaps raising issues of morality or word patterns."
Imagine primary school children suffering all the rebuffs to curiosity, imagination, verbal pleasure, that such a policy is sure to cause. Is this the way to produce a literacy that lasts for life, long after the tests are over, and is good for both work and play? Will it encourage the progression that Richard Hoggart charts here, from basic literacy to critical literacy and creative reading?
Both in and out of schools, the world of books is represented in these essays as full of life but under siege. Writers from the literary world defend the endangered classics, though, as A S Byatt points out, "works from the past do not all live for ever". She usefully quotes from George Steiner's distinction between a canon and a syllabus: "A canon is the literature that goes on living because the living writers keep it alive by learning from it, using it, echoing and re-presenting it. . . A syllabus is a political construction based on a pedagogic idea of what students 'ought' to know." If we must have lists of prescribed texts, let the canon determine them.
And over all is the cryptic presence of the new communications technologies, and their actual or potential effect on reading, on books, and perhaps - as Sven Birketts suggests in his Armageddon-like essay - on human perception itself.
Here, and in other issues examined in this book, school English intersects with the larger political and technological world. As Colin MacCabe argues:
"The most urgent challenge is to determine how the new technologies can be introduced into the classroom, together with pedagogies which will enable those technologies to help children acquire the older and crucial skills of reading and writing."
Now there is a worthwhile and urgent task for Mr Blunkett, befitting his correct concern with the technological future. Better by far than imposing a revived utilitarianism on what should be the joyous adventure of true literacy.
Peter Hollindale is reader in English and educational studies at the University of York