English teachers are on the ball so play fair

11th November 2005 at 00:00
On the surface it has all the appearance of a democratic engagement with the community under review, but of course it comes with no guarantees that the advice solicited will be listened to. Ignore people too often, though, and cynicism in the whole process ensues.

The world of education is littered with examples of this type of consultation, where the subsequent documents often show little or no evidence of the views submitted in the process. English teaching is no exception. Every time a government has decided to change the curriculum, it has sent out forms upon which the interested parties can air their views.

Each time the English teaching community has, in the main, been overlooked.

But English teachers are a bit like Charlie Brown. The Schultz cartoon character could not resist returning to kick the ball for Lucy, who would always whip it away at the last minute and leave him flat on his back. They cannot turn down the offer of a chance to shape the curriculum they teach, even if a sigh of "Good grief" is all they are left with at the end of the process.

Their latest opportunity has been English 21. Evidence from the so-called "Playback", to be found on the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority website, suggests that English teachers took the chance quite seriously.

The overwhelming majority of responses to English 21 came from those professionally engaged with the subject. Many of these came in the form of events organised as part of the English 21 "national conversation", which began in February, ended in July and finally reported this week.

A sucker for this kind of thing myself, I organised a symposium in May.

This gathered together experienced examiners, KS3 consultants and teachers who had worked outside the current, highly restrictive, testing regime. Two came from Jersey, which has abandoned the Sats, one had taught in the independent sector and another had been one of the architects of KS3 English tests before Ken Clarke, then Education Secretary, rejected them.

All of them presented coherent, working alternatives to the present system.

This overwhelming desire to jettison the narrow key stage tests was echoed by the English 21 respondents. And we should take their views seriously. A recent Ofsted report into the teaching of English over the past five years claimed it was one of the best-taught subjects in school.

Significantly, writers of this document felt it was important to note English teachers' dislike of the current testing arrangements.

Yet once again, it seems, the voice of the experts has been ignored.

Already the caveats to any real change to assessment in English are evident in the English 21 Playback. Tellingly, it describes how teachers feel that the opportunities to be creative and imaginative had "seeped" away because of the "pressure" of the "perceived demands of assessments". Not real, you note, just perceived.

Consultation is not cheap. Many of the events were subsidised by the QCA, and the publication of the report and the time it took to put together will also have been costly. But we do have to begin to ask why the Government goes through this expensive veneer of listening when their hearing is so consistently selective. To encourage faith in the consultative process, it should at least show some semblance of respect towards a group of teachers who get an almost rave review from a body not known for its generosity towards teachers. As for me, I will remain optimistic like Charlie Brown and continue to fling myself into the fray in the hope that one day the other side will play fair.

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