Reclaiming the lost curriculum

1st March 1996 at 00:00
Jonathan Stewart pins his hopes on the future rather than on an illusory Golden Age as he previews next month's NATE conference.

Teachers of English could be forgiven for thinking they had entered an inverse time warp where everything appears to work in reverse order. The prescribed reading list in the new English curriculum would not look out of place on Paul Pennyfeather's dusty private school shelf in Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall. The year? 1928.

In a society increasingly absorbed by new technology and the new thinking as part of the millennium, it is astounding to witness the entrenched political view that, while everything else must move with the times, education should go back to a "golden age" when children read great works and emerged from the classroom dazed by the awe and wonder of it all.

Teacher, examining boards and English consultants and advisers have spent the past decade unravelling an ideologically driven curriculum and delivering it to students in a pragmatic and, dare I say it, exciting way.

There, I've said it. I've used a word almost extinct from any Department for Education and Employment, School Curriculum and Assessment Authority or ministerial brief in recent years. Frankly, teachers should have had enough by now. They face an increasingly sophisticated and streetwise youth and attempt to teach them a curriculum that was offered to their peers of 40, 50 or even 60 years ago. They should down with whiteboard markers, tear up the mark books and join together to form franchises of a Disney theme park offering parents a chance to return to the Golden Age School of Innocence and High Academic Standards where children knew their place and rote-learned significant works of "literary worth" were on the tongues of every schoolboy and girl.

But they don't . . . they go to conferences instead. In their own time, often from their own resources.

The annual conference of the National Association for the Teaching of English each Easter bears testament to the enthusiasm, determination and creativity of English teachers who, despite calls for a return to an illusory bygone era, make an ever-changing curriculum relevant, rigorous and interesting for their students. This year the conference, entitled "Making Waves", is to be held in Guildford at the University of Surrey.

There is a choice of more than 20 workshops, seminars of professional development and curriculum issues and three keynote speakers who have each made important contributions to the debate surrounding both the initial and revised national curriculum.

Professor Ted Wragg of Exeter University has cheered many in the profession with his wry contributions in The TES and the support he has given to teachers during the acrimonious years since the Education Reform Act of 1988.

Sue Hackman, consultant for English in Surrey, is well known for her books on literature, media and writing, in addition to her work on language development. Stuart Middleton, president of the New Zealand Association for the Teaching of English (NZATE), will be offering a perspective from down under at a time when teachers there are engaged in the implementation of a national curriculum.

The conference may well be the last one before a general election, bringing with it the hope a new agenda for the teaching of English which is rational and free of the political ideology which has plagued education in recent years. Or am I just dreaming?

The 33rd annual conference of the National Association for the Teaching of English will be held at the University of Surrey from April 1-4. Further details can be found in the Courses and Conferences section on page 7. For a conference brochure contact NATE on 0114 255 5419 Jonathan Stewart is conference officer for NATE '96.

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