Now that the flower children have faded

30th January 2004 at 00:00
Grammar went out with the Sixties but the pendulum is beginning to swing back, says David Cockburn

That swinging decade, the Sixties, is very largely responsible for the state of education in the 21st century. The hallmark then was egalitarianism and creativity - every pupil had to be treated in exactly the same way, and nothing, but nothing, should interfere with the flow of their creative juices.

Old-fashioned pedagogues were regarded as jaundiced dinosaurs, out of touch with the new, caring, cutting-edge, pupil-centred learning. That was the other trend in that trendiest of decades: pupil-centredness. Relevance was in, and that which was thought not to impinge on their experience was out.

The notion that education could be there for education's sake was an idea as outmoded as the previous decade. Rigour was regarded as so antithetical to creativity that teachers discouraged the correction of spelling, the teaching of grammar, the systematic analysis of literature.

The age of the project was ushered in. Everything had to be in themes, and even literature was seen as a springboard to the creative process - certainly not something to be studied, far less analysed, and not at all evaluated, the very words now used by the new Higher English as a sop to the middle-aged consciences of its architects.

All pupils had to be treated in the same way, so setting was anathema, the common course became obligatory and mixed-ability was the watchword of the new vocabulary. And that's what it was: the old order changed and the new orthodoxy replaced it.

To be regarded as a worthy teacher, to be promoted, to fast-track up the career ladder, you had to espouse the new thinking. The emperor had new clothes and to say otherwise meant professional death. So Shakespeare, especially in S1 and S2, was regarded as rebarbative, grammar as stultifying, the systematic analysis of literature as inimical to sensitivity. In reality, the problem was that many of these things simply could not be part of the common course or taught to a mixed-ability class.

So they were ditched.

Clearly, it was the system that was wrong, not the curriculum. The evidence today is not just that the brightest are bored, insufficiently challenged, cocooned in an intellectual vacuum, but that the 20 per cent of those at the bottom of the class are grossly underachieving. Several cohorts of pupils have suffered merely to prove that the new orthodoxy was wrong.

Latin was so discredited that it became a dead language. The reluctant Luddites in modern languages departments had to eschew their academic ways and develop methods of teaching French and German in a grammarless culture.

Meritocracy was replaced by mediocrity, which has pervaded the past four decades. We now have a generation of English teachers some of whom know little about grammar and find the analysis of sentence structure all but impossible.

But the wonderful thing about education is that if you hang around long enough you become fashionable again. There is a recognition that there is much wrong with the S1 and S2 curriculum, that mixed-ability has become synonymous with obscurantism, the common course intractable. Even Latin is making a comeback. The Sixties may have been swinging, but the pendulum is beginning to swing back. The evidence lies, perhaps surprisingly, in the questions that some in the Scottish Executive are beginning to ask.

What to do now? Whatever happens, we must not throw out all that we have learnt over the past 40 years. There is no way that we will return to the appalling teaching of the 1950s. But we need to reintroduce rigour, we need to teach grammar within a context that pupils will understand and we have to ensure that they recognise that punctuation is important because it clarifies meaning. We must fire young people's imaginations and develop their linguistic skills by inspirational teaching - and by not being afraid of exposing them to challenging ideas and great works of literature.

Elitist? Maybe, but the egalitarian approach failed everyone except perhaps those in the middle. There has to be something drastically wrong with a system that fails to inculcate the skills the 21st century demands and to deny knowledge of Shakespeare, Milton and Dickens (to cite just a few) to those who will become the professional, political and business leaders of Scottish and UK society.

It is vitally important that English departments throughout Scotland cater for all pupils, but not in the same way. We have to expose our pupils to the richest possible diet of literature, and we have to encourage intellectual enquiry and rigour. We have, at last, to ditch notions of egalitarianism in favour of appropriacy.

It is also vital to restructure not just the secondary curriculum but the institution of the school itself - but that is another story.

David Cockburn is a former principal examiner for Higher English.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today