The 'L' hour is power;Opinion

15th May 1998 at 01:00
The national strategy finally gives literacy the status it enjoys outside the education system, argues John Bald.

THE POLITICS of literacy, in this country far more than in any other in Europe, combine the territorial complexity of a Burgundian vineyard with the ethics of a catfight. The reasons for this are not immediately obvious. No one believes in illiteracy, and virtually all parents, of whatever political persuasion, want their children to achieve at least as much in terms of literacy as they have themselves.

So why does the largest teaching union vote against the literacy hour, why the ferocious 20-year squabble over the teaching of grammar, and why do all sides - local authorities no less than central government - go armed with their enforcers under the various guises of advice, consultancy and inspection? Why, in the end, has the debate on the best way of helping children to develop skills which everyone agrees are crucial to their future become known as the "literacy wars"?

The answer seems to lie in a quotation from the poet Miroslav Holub: "The root of the matter is not in the matter itself." In this case, the root of the matter is not the best ways of teaching literacy, but the social consequences of the whole education system. The Marxists have a point. Provided they have sufficient sense and personal skills not to throw their chances away, people whose literacy skills are highly developed can use them to make more money than others, often in multiples.

They then do everything they can to pass these advantages on to their children. The famous letter from the ancient Egyptian scribe to his son, exhorting him to work hard at school to avoid the pains and dangers of manual work, shows that the instinct is as old as civilisation: "I have seen how a man may be relieved of his duties ... behold, there is no profession without a boss except the scribe: he is the boss."

Seen in this light, education is a means of turning brainpower into cash, and eventually into privilege. This is the foundation of social inequality based on the principle identified by Michael Young in the late 1950s as IQ+effort=merit. Both Marxists and liberal progressives have opposed it by promoting approaches that put less emphasis on literacy and more on other aspects of education, hoping to lessen the divide and to use the education system as a lever to change social values that they see as unjust.

The problem is that the education system exists to serve society and not the other way about. Parents will not sign up for a crusade based on values to which they do not subscribe, and the economy is not some abstract irrelevance that need not interfere with the process of personal growth. A person who is not literate is either unemployable or has very restricted options, and this is not something educationists can change.

As you can redistribute literacy through some form of intellectual taxation, or prevent the highest attainers from passing on their success to their children, the only real way of reducing inequality is by raising the standards of those who are less literate.

This is what the Government has chosen to do and it is an approach to reducing inequality that is diametrically opposed to the values that have governed British education, and particularly primary education, since the mid-1960s.

It has decided that the cycle of failure and disaffection that dominates many people's experience of education needs to be broken. Instead of the tactic of trying to get round the obstacle that semi-literacy has placed in the way of disadvantaged children, it has decided on a head-on assault.

The opposition from those who have reached positions of power and leadership under the old system will include the classic academic and political tactics of appearing to make reasonable objections to detail, while in fact trying to torpedo the whole initiative. Fortunately, David Blunkett learned all of these tricks in local government, and the national literacy strategy will prevail.

The strategy has shown that it can help teachers to teach more effectively, and the objections of education's political class are generally not shared by those actually carrying out the work. The defects in the the framework should have been detected in advance, but they can be rectified by giving teachers discretion to work on earlier parts if children have not yet mastered them.

Above all, we now have a clear national strategy that cuts through the boundaries of ideology and fiefdom and gives literacy the prominence in the education system that it has outside it. Twenty years after James Callaghan's celebrated but ill-fated Ruskin speech, educational politics have been forced into line with the core political values of the rest of society.

For good or ill, and in my view for our children's good, we have reached the end of an era.

John Bald is a language and literacy consultant

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