Last weekend my daughter commandeered the television remote and, as I was too knackered to stop her, exposed me to RuPaul's Drag Race. In case you haven't stumbled across it yet, it's a reality TV series that follows a bunch of drag artists competing to become the next "drag superstar". It's not heavy on the gravitas.
When the contestants aren't taping down their todgers or tottering beneath wigs the size of care homes, they spend their time running up their own makeshift outfits, sewing diamant on to old net curtains in an effort to impress the judges.
But the real low point comes at the end, when drag doyenne RuPaul announces to the two least successful contestants: "The time has come for you to lip-synch for your life." To one of his own disco hits. Now, the sight of two blokes in full drag, mouthing to a mediocre disco track in order to win a place in the following week's show has to be the nadir of human evolution. If they were actually singing there might be some merit in it. But just lip-synching the words? By comparison, Celebrity Big Brother seems like The Reith Lectures.
The spectacle almost roused me from my torpor. I spend my life encouraging young people to find their own voice, so winning a competition by pretending to sing seems like an abomination of nature. Then again, RuPaul isn't exactly a textbook teacher; his catchphrase "Don't fuck it up, bitches" may be a learning objective I can relate to, but I rarely scribble it on the whiteboard.
One of the best things about teaching English has always been watching children gaining confidence in public speaking. That this used to count as part of their GCSE grade was an added bonus. Effective oral communication helps you win friends and influence people. It also gets you into posh universities and nabs you the highest-paid jobs. And, oddly, it was the one part of the curriculum that students never questioned. Although they bemoaned the pointlessness of poetry ("Miss, what's the use of studying sonnets?"), they took to speaking and listening tasks without a single protestation.
But since the downgrading of the English speaking and listening unit, we're loath to invest curriculum time in something that doesn't influence results. So teaching children to present their ideas without giggling, fidgeting or slouching has dropped to the bottom of the long list of things we intend to do but never quite get round to, such as teaching irregular past tenses, subjunctive moods and how to glue worksheets into books without sticking yourself to your partner.
Even though oratory is such a useful work and life skill, it probably won't matter in the end. Given the public's growing distrust of the English exam system, the ability to lip-synch to 9 to 5 while wiggling your strap-on boobies might just get you the job.
Beverley Briggs is a secondary school teacher from County Durham, England.