How I learned to love the literacy strategy

20th July 2001 at 01:00
An Orwellian nightmare holds no terrors for John Clarke

In common with most English teachers, I've completed my two-day training on implementation of the key stage 3 literacy strategy. I'm fresh from the sheep dip, pronounced clear of contamination and ready to lead my own flock towards fluency in the written and spoken language.

I set off for the course against a backdrop of smug smiles from primary colleagues with "now it's your turn" etched clearly on their faces. There were lone voices crying in the wilderness about an Orwellian nightmare of over-prescription and state control of first, the curriculum, and now pedagogy. And indeed, voices in my own head were saying this was all folly.

The accusations lined up against the strategy are many and varied. It has been a success because people in positions of power and influence keep saying it has been a success. The strategy neglects extended reading and writing in favour of a constant diet of short extracts. It is a return to de-contextualised grammar exercises that works with middle-class, uniformed, amenable children. But when will the DfES produce a training video that reflects the reality for most teachers? A sort of bog standard cinema verite?

Perhaps most damning of all, the strategy stands accused of denying the individual teacher's creativity and flair. It has jettisoned the philosophical standpoint of the many English teachers who maintain that their lessons allow their pupils to access feeling and insight.

In the event, the worst fears about the training were not realised. The trainers were friendly and supportive with a firm grip on reality. While recognising the faults in previous practice (be honest, what proportion of a class fully engages in the class reader?), they also urged the adoption of current best practice. Teaching writing, for instance, should involve the definition of particular genres, the provision of good quality models, reading to deepen understanding and appreciation, the study of how writers achieve effect and pupil involvement in parody and pastiche.

At this point I found myself at the forefront of a group of teachers nodding in a satisfied, self-congratulatory way about how this does, in fact, describe our current practice - albeit without, perhaps, the rigour demanded by the strategy.

I was thinking over these points recently when I had one of those encounters teachers often dread. "Hello, Sir! Remember me?" Fortunately, this time I was able to recall the face and put a name to it.

Hayley and I swapped pleasantries for a while and I made the usual "what are you doing now?" inquiries. It was one of those doesn't-pay-the-mortgage-but-it-makes-you-glad-to-be-a-teacher moments. But Hayley's final comment was something of a double-edged sword. "English was always my favourite subject. It was fun."

I had to pause for a while because the word fun had never been mentioned on the training. And I wondered about how many pupils in the future, after a diet of steadfastly pursuing objectives, would regard English as fun - their favourite subject.

But it was only a momentary pause as I was ready to march into the Brave New World. Like Winston Smith, I have spent my time in Room 101 and I have won the battle over myself. Now I love Big Brother and I love the national literacy strategy.

John Clarke is head of English at Balby Carr school, Doncaster

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