Power of passion

21st September 2007 at 01:00
Somewhere along the line the Government forgot about basic literacy and became functional. It has brought out draft guidelines, which will possibly become exams for 16-year-olds, outlining all that is functional in English Functional Skills: English.

The use of the word "functional" is interesting. It contains the basics, the fundamentals, but holds also the idea of fitness for purpose the idea that a person will use language appropriately in a given context, given the function of the occasion. At its best there is even a hint of the glamorous function, positively black tie and long frock.

But when we read the list of Functional Skills: English we are left with a very different picture. The requirements for reading, writing, speaking and listening contain nothing overtly reprehensible. Reading, for example, at the highest level, asks pupils to: "read, understand and compare texts and use them to gather information, ideas, arguments and opinions". With writing, pupils must be able to: "write documents communicating information, ideas and opinions effectively".

But where is the sense of passion in these statements? And a hint of passion, or, at the very least, creativity, is what English should be about. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's English 21, a document now nearly hree years old, had creativity as one of its strands. An Ofsted report on the teaching of English, which came out at the same time, cited the Programme for International Student Assessment. It said that: "being more enthusiastic about reading, and a frequent reader was more of an advantage on its own than having well-educated parents". Reading for pleasure obviously counts.

What is most worrying about the functional skills, however, is to whom and how they will be taught. Those pupils who are deemed literate already will probably see little change in their curriculum, even if in parts it becomes slightly drab. But those pupils who are seen to struggle may never see what the point of reading a good book is, or argue vociferously for their point of view to be heard. They will never engage in the delights of fiction or enjoy writing about something that matters to them.

"There is", wrote the educationist John Dewey, "all the difference in the world between having something to say and having to say something." For those seen to be struggling, English, from the primary school onwards, will be a dreary occasion where pupils will study nothing but that which is functional

Dr Bethan Marshall is senior lecturer in English education at King's College, University of London

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