Reality check

24th September 2004 at 01:00
Geoff Barton takes issue with 'accepted' views of English as she is taught.

According to the authors, The Art of Teaching Secondary English is written "as a counter to recurring reductive and mechanistic tendencies in school-based English". At this point - two sentences into the book - we part company. They quote Blake, Wordsworth and Heaney to reaffirm the Romantic traditions of the subject, believing that English is inevitably a "challenge to the status quo", and writing "a means of control inflicted on a more or less unwilling student population".

This isn't my perception after 20 years of teaching English in secondary schools. I take issue with statements like this: "At KS4 Shakespeare is addressed through coursework - an area of study which receives such a paltry portion of the total mark-share that hard-pressed teachers with one eye on their league-table results are understandably reluctant to devote too much precious classroom time to it." Not so. In my experience we still tend to spend too much time on coursework.

All the old stereotypes are here. They continually describe the National Literacy Strategy as mechanistic, undermining creativity and free expression. Its emphasis on non-fiction is primarily concerned, they say, with teaching "the language of the workplace". The dominance of texts from the literary heritage disadvantages working-class children and those from ethnic backgrounds.

This is insulting to the current generation of English teachers who, in my experience, are teaching more creatively and passionately than ever. It patronises students who, whatever their background, may be pleased to engage with some of the most influential texts of our culture. And none of the assertions is underpinned by evidence. So let's nail the myth that English teaching was automatically better in the past. I was taught English in the 1970s and, apart from one exceptional English teacher, it was a relentless diet of tedium, utilitarianism and dullness. I learned nothing about English grammar, except in my French lessons, and until the sixth form I knew nothing of the heritage of English literature.

I trained as an English teacher in the early 1980s and when I asked for advice on how to teach students to punctuate accurately, my seminar group fell silent. It was like breaking wind in public, presumably deemed a threat to children's creativity.

In my first year of teaching - based on one solitary lesson observation and in the absence of any national standards - I was deemed a competent teacher (weren't we all?), and proceeded to drag my classes mercilessly through six class readers per year - all in the name of literature.

In the hands of great English teachers, the past was vibrant and exciting, just as it is now. But let's not forget that in 1996 the National Foundation for Educational Research published a report on standards over time in literacy. It reached an extraordinary conclusion: "average levels of performance have remained much the same since 1948."

It wasn't just that literacy standards hadn't risen in around 50 years, it was also that we had made no impact on inequality. Any of us who has been teaching English for more than 10 years bears some responsibility for this scandalous statistic. Locked behind the barricade of professional autonomy, we did our own thing, quacking on about personal growth, creativity, 100 per cent coursework, equality. But we didn't tackle the issue of standards.

We largely failed to tackle the disparity in performance between students of similar talents in different classrooms. Instead we left it to individual teachers to do their own thing - and that's my problem with The Art of Teaching Secondary English. Written by two distinguished authors, it contains genuinely interesting ideas and speaks with passion about the subject. It saddens me to be so gloomy about the book but, written from the detached outposts of university education departments, it doesn't paint a picture of English in schools I recognise, nor address the issues that English teachers are engaging with today.

Meanwhile, The Complete Guide to Becoming an English Teacher embraces a different world. It recognises from the outset that English teachers today are entering the profession from a range of routes. Thus it addresses trainees on flexible PGCE routes, those with backgrounds in Teaching Education as a Foreign Language, teaching assistants who are training as teachers, as well as people embarking on second or third careers. All of these have different needs, and the beauty of the book is the way it speaks unpatronisingly and with enormous authority to such a diverse audience.

The structure of each section is impressive in its clarity and range.

There's an overview and a rationale, all briskly accomplished, then a set of highly focused activities to deepen knowledge and understanding. Next, there are further ideas and useful, up-to-date website suggestions. Best of all, the book is open-minded, contemporary, committed to encouraging the trainee teacher's own reflection and development of skills and knowledge.

It combines practical approaches with a light-touch summary of philosophical principles.

If I was training to teach English today, this is the book I would want - an extraordinarily professional handbook of good practice. Compiled by a team of university lecturers, it admirably demonstrates the way theory and practice can combine to illuminate the varied demands of being an English teacher today.

Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Suffolk. He also writes English textbooks

The Art of Teaching Secondary English: Innovative and Creative Approaches

By David Stevens and Nicholas McGuinn

RoutledgeFalmer pound;16.99

The Complete Guide to Becoming an English Teacher

By Stephen Clarke, Paul Dickinson and Jo Westbrook

Paul Chapman pound;18.99

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