Pleasure that can't be told

29th November 2002 at 00:00
English teachers share a guilty secret - it is love of the subject, not tests, that inspires them, says Bethan Marshall

The new English tests for 14-year-olds are wretched. They are the boring, unimaginative, drab construction of a testing regime more concerned with producing an infallible mark scheme than with assessing ability in English.

I do not hold anyone in the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority responsible for this parlous state of affairs. They are simply following the instructions of their political masters.

Glance at test materials that appeared online only a fortnight ago (far too late for serious preparation by teachers) and you will see that the tests construct a model of English that involves picking through the bones of the language or writing dreary works of non-fiction. The rich diversity of the English curriculum has been trapped in a cage built of assessment objectives.

Now, do not get me wrong. I love practical criticism. I am one of those strange individuals who went to university to tear books apart for three years. Moreover, I think my enjoyment of the language was enhanced by the arcane practice of close textual analysis. So much did I enjoy the activity that I went on and did it for another year.

Nor do I think that such close reading is without its uses in everyday life. Being able to read between the lines is an essential tool for citizenship. We need to know when we are being sold a line or to catch the contradictions in an argument. And call me old-fashioned but I do think everyone should read Shakespeare. Just not like this.

In a world driven by assessment objectives and success criteria, English teachers share a guilty secret. If they have one real learning outcome it is pleasure. In answer to the question, 'What do you want them to get out of this lesson?' the unspoken response will often be 'I want them to like this poem, or book or play' - hence the old-fashioned term "literary appreciation". That is why these teachers are in the classroom in the first place.

Every year I interview nearly a hundred prospective English teachers and the 30 or so that eventually get picked are motivated by a passion for the artistry of words on a page. One of the first assignments they write is a history of themselves as readers and all, in their varying ways, describe the pleasure in escape; the way they coped with the trauma of adolescence by finding companions in fiction or role models in the artists' lives. Many refer to their own desire to create art through language.

This is what they want to inspire in others. They want to create a space where children can discuss ideas and experiences through the safety net of fiction, be it print or celluloid; a place where they can escape the griminess of everyday life through imagined realities on screen or in a book. Teachers want to provide opportunities for their pupils to have a voice, to find expression in as eloquent manner as they can. They want them to enjoy language.

I used to think studying grammar in arid decontextualised exercises was a bad thing. I am beginning to think that if we want to salvage any resemblance of a meaningful English curriculum from the travesty of the framework and these tests, then we need to study the mechanics of language separately.

At the moment, any text - be it book, play, poem or article - is turned into a grammar primer as texts are trawled for some rule of punctuation or example of a subordinate clause. This impoverished view of linguistic analysis, which currently dominates every aspect of the subject, is policed by the new examination system.

Small wonder that once more there are rumblings of dissent across the land.

Not simply from London English teachers, whose opinion is too easily dismissed by policy-makers, but from the shires and home counties. They are mad as hell and they just might not take it any more.

There are rumours of boycotts afoot and it would behove Education Secretary Charles Clarke to listen to them.

Dr Bethan Marshall lectures in English education at King's College, London Shakespeare in LA, Friday magazine, 8

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