Fast track to failure

11th November 2005 at 00:00
The English language curriculum is out of control and it's the Government, not teachers, who are in the driving seat, writes Robert Belcher

I always found it quite amazing that one book was supposed to cover the whole of English grammar, the intricacy and subtlety of vocabulary usage and all the complexity of syntax and semantic nuance.

The huge English for Speakers of Other Languages Curriculumis supposed to set out what is to be taught to learners of the language. The meta-language of the curriculum deals with objectives - the philosophy being that the learner will, as if by eating up each objective, quickly accumulate the ability to communicate.

Just like BBC bite-size chunks, a language can be digested and regurgitated in an exam. If you open the curriculum for ESOL, the mass of language talking about language is so dry and tortuous it is like a legal document, and completely unusable. It is frowned upon in academic circles.

But apparently the Government knows more than academics. The whole of basic skills and ESOL, the "Cinderella sector", has always been treated as unable to function by itself. That is why the curriculum was invented, to aid these vague and helpless pseudo-teachers, who need a hand to guide them.

What warped ideology spawned it? What educational junta instigated this dictatorial regime enslaving teachers everywhere?

It is clear whoever designed the curriculum was under pressure from above.

Evidence of this is in the naming of levels for ESOL. Instead of using the traditional names understandable the world over, such as beginners and intermediate, these are now E1 and L1. If that isn't confusing enough, the terms L1 and L2 already have an important meaning in the study of language acquisition, that of the native language (L1) and the new language to be learnt (L2).

Why should any government prescribe controls on a teacher's job? Teachers understand themselves and their subject matter very well. Can you imagine such interference and pressure from the Government in any other field? Would you trust Tony Blair to design your house? It is insulting. Teachers are not being allowed to think for themselves, and students suffer likewise.

It is not only the curriculum we have to put up with, but everything associated which has been woven into the new system, culminating in exams that are simply not suitable. It has become a dictatorial regime.

Individuals, instead of getting the right help, are pawns in an industry serving up some other product than that of their own learning.

This is just as true for adults as it is for secondary and primary education. It is a kind of debasing of learning and of the human mind - a dumbing down. Just go and look in every classroom. Children are being kept back from learning by the national curriculum's limited, unvarying simplification of the world.

The fact is the re-constructionist idea of goals and objectives which pervades today's school and college systems is only one kind of educational tradition. It is the purpose of education which must first be considered in any curriculum planning. It is all very well trying to integrate people into a society, but we are ignoring the important self-developmental aspect that a process-based curriculum has. This does not have defined objectives, but relies on natural acquisition processes to internalise new language.

In a study of curriculum planning in Australia, teachers were asked what they saw as their primary roles. It was found that they thought they should have control of everything: goal and objective-setting, selecting content, designing a curriculum and learning activities, instruction methods, monitoring, and initial needs analysis. All these areas are now under government guidelines and control. Current curriculum theory is towards negotiated syllabuses; but the Government is going in the opposite direction. Sometimes a syllabus can only be devised during a course, and can alter according to needs. But how can this be when at the end of each year all students are required to pass the same exam?

A GCSE teacher admitted to me that she has a song she sings to her students, once they are well into their course. It goes, "Welcome aboard the AQA express, if you work it'll bring joy and success".

If goals are not met it will mean the express locomotive that the teacher and student's term has become, will come crashing through into a no-man's world of goalless confusion, a wishy-washy undefined existence will come about - but perhaps then the brain could begin to function again as it should.

Cinderella sector we may be, and sure enough, after we have met the deadlines for this term, and thrown the students down the tunnel towards exam success, we will all have turned into pumpkins, our students into rats and ragged housemaids.

Robert Belcher is an ESOL lecturer at Southwark college

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