By George, I think we've lost it

16th September 2005 at 01:00
An Englishman's way of speaking absolutely classifies him. The moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him." So declaims Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. It seems reasonable to ask, with apologies to English women, whether this position has changed much since the Edwardian period in which the show is set.

Accent may not matter as much, but class continues to pervade every aspect of society, and it has a profound impact on children's life chances. This year, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has been consulting on the future of English (see pages 14-15). It wants to know how new technologies, changes in the country's ethnic make-up, and the transforming world in general should affect the way our language and literature are taught.

But it's also important to look back, and think about something that started with the cavemen: speech. Tellingly, in its response to the review, the Secondary Students' Association said the most disliked activity in English lessons was making presentations or reading to their peer group.

Which is where Professor Higgins comes in.

Posh schools teach children to be articulate. Children learn to give speeches, to recite, to debate. Speaking and listening is classy. Why does it continue to have such low status in state schools? We know how concerned early-years teachers are when four-year-olds arrive in reception only able to "grunt". Yet schools are afraid to spend too much time on oracy. The National Union of Teachers has no doubt about why. Speaking is "often undervalued as a learning activity" says its response, "since it does not appear in statutory national curriculum tests and need not be reported to parents".

Is there still a lurking belief that children should be seen and not heard? That the really articulate ones are too clever by half? That children should know their place?

It is not clear what the review will lead to, or whether Ministers want to change the curriculum or the testing regime. So, as the QCA suggests, the way ahead is up to teachers themselves. Otherwise, Henry Higgins's question will echo down another century: "Why can't the English learn to speak?"

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