English warrior warns of revolt

27th April 2001 at 01:00
The academic whose anti-test campaign led to the fall of a minister is on the warpath again, reports Amanda Kelly.

WHEN Dr Bethan Marshall predicts widespread teacher revolt over the level of prescription and testing in the new key stage 3 framework for English, the Government has good reason to feel nervous.

It was her campaign against the radical changes to English teaching, caused by the introduction of the national curriculum and tests regime in the early 1990s, that led to the eventual downfall of the then Conservative education secretary John Patten.

What started out as a boycott of the tests by a small group of London English teachers, spearheaded by Dr Marshall, quickly escalated into a two-year national boycott by teachers in all subjects. The situation was only resolved by the promise of the Dearing review.

"The tests were the final straw," she explains. "They came after the government had replaced a curriculum that most English teachers supported, with one that was far more prescriptive. Then they abolished GCSEs that were based on 100 per cent coursework.

"Finally, they expected us to teach these ill-conceived, unpiloted tests that involved Shakespeare by exam and multiple-choice tests. We simply no longer recognised the subject we had set out to teach and decided enough was enough."

Today a newspaper columnist, who has even written for the Daily Mail, lecturer and author of the well-received book English Teachers - the Unofficial Guide, the 42-year-old feels just as passionately about the perceived threat to her beloved subject as she did a decade ago.

She believes the extension of the numeracy and literacy programme into secondary schools represents an attack on teachers' ability to decide what is best for their sudents.

"Not since the early 1990s have I registered such anger among English teachers. If the Government doesn't start listening to them very soon, we could see a repeat of the kind of boycott we saw 10 years ago," she says.

Two of her favourite refrains are "English is about art, creativity and ideas - not just communication and literacy skills" and "passing a spelling test doesn't teach you how to write".

Her passion for the subject is home-grown. The daughter of an English teacher and an industrial economist, she spent her childhood bemoaning the fact that English teachers at Notting Hill and Ealing girls' grammar school, west London, failed to pass on the same energy and enthusiasm for books as her mother.

As she and her classmates yawned their way through endless comprehension and multiple-choice tests, she vowed that one day she would return to the classroom and bring the subject to life for the next generation.

After completing an English and American studies degree at Nottingham University, a post-graduate certificate in education at Cambridge and an MA in English literature at Queen Mary College, London, she finally embarked on her life's mission at the age of 23.

The 1980s were spent teaching in some of the toughest schools in west London where she attempted to motivate youngsters who had shown little interest in any other subject.

Between 1991 and 1996 she worked as an adviser for English, drama and the media at Ealing council. She then completed a PhD at London's King's College, where she now lectures.

Any spare time is devoted to her husband, also an English teacher, and two daughters, aged nine and 10 - one of whom has already decided she'll be following her mother's footsteps into the classroom.


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