No room for snobs in literacy jam

7th January 2000 at 00:00
AS I WRITE, the newspapers are riding high on more evidence of falling standards in literacy. We seem to be stuck in a Bunyan slough of despair with no glimmer of resolution.

There's plenty of noisy chirping about what's wrong but little sensible effort to sort it. Politicians hand out nippy homilies like apples at Hallowe'en but we are not advancing in terms of examining the curriculum and developing better ways of teaching basic literacy.

Take the yawning gap between primary and secondary. All the e-mails in the world are no substitute for face-to-face discussion. You would have thought that the advent of the 5-14 programme might have meant a bridging of the ravine between them and us but no luck. Teachers are like no other group in society in the way they scurry into their classrooms and become hermits.

Of course, lack of time is the enemy of any productive interaction and I have sympathy with my teaching colleagues. Politicians could remedy the problem by training more teachers and investing more cash in education. Let me spell it out. Primary and secondary teachers need time to speak to one another so that we can develop the best possible courses for our pupils whether they be five or 16.

Let me put it in lights. Fabulously talented as the public expects us to be, we cannot talk to each other and teach at the same time. Actually, within my Associated Schools Group, (official title for primary-secondary conglomerates) there is a huge amount of co-operation over developing policies that benefit pupils.

One example of this is the Literacy Across the Curriculum programme delivered to primary 7 pupils by teachers of English from secondary school. No, we do not, in any way, supplant the role of the primary teacher in this venture, but we show ourselves to be part of a team who see no demarcation line between primary and secondary. Anoter valuable person in the team is the sixth-year secondary pupil who has been through it all and who knows, in the intuitive way that the Man from Del Monte knows, how important and cool it is to write in sentences.

So, apart from the obvious cash flow problem, what stands in the way of establishments adopting such approaches? I hate to say this but a smattering of teachers from both sectors have an ego problem. They are all in this mess together but not all of them recognise it.

It's a bit like a traffic jam. There's a certain democracy about being snarled in by hordes of vehicles. Whether you drive a Mini or a Porsche you're there for the duration. The literacy thing is the same - primary or secondary, we all own the problem. But have you heard teachers doing the intellectual snobbery act? It's humiliating to listen to: "No, can't talk to her . . . she doesn't have a degree, you know . . . She's not a specialist like me with my first-class honours in superiority. And her maths! My three-year-old is ahead of her."

Yes, some primary teachers can be extremely annoying. I think of the infant teacher, who, in sharing the curriculum with prospective parents, went over the reading to the extent of adopting a sing-song nannying voice.

But it's secondary teachers - yes, sorry folks - who take the biscuit. I remember a colleague from long ago who thought her degree from Cambridge surpassed any other qualification. When she learnt I was not a graduate of Oxford or Cambridge, she responded with a grudging: "But, nevertheless, you are a hard-working girl." I took secret pleasure in the fact that she didn't seem to know her Jane Austen from her Shakespeare.

There you have it, we all have hang-ups but I'm hoping that this year we and our political masters will get our acts together. Remember the mantra - education, education, education.

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