Talking English to no real effect

16th September 2005 at 01:00
I find myself wondering why the reasonableness of the documents and discussions originating with and commenting on English 21 leave me in a state of anxiety. Surely someone like me, a strong supporter of both the method and the content of the consultation, should be one of the first to welcome it.

Here, after all, is one of the official institutions of English teaching and assessment, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, opening up a wide-ranging public forum on how the subject should be taught. The opening documents have been keen to stress inclusion, diversity and creativity and have shown open-mindedness on new technology, the canon, oral language, grammar and skills. So why the unease?

It feels to me like throwing things over a wall. At the start of a new school year, a series of problems has been created in part by the same body that set this ball rolling. So, how seriously should we take a document looking forward 10 years, when we cannot engage with the questions facing us today?

The documents that lay down the what, why and how of English teaching are anonymous. Anyone who goes through a university education is inducted into the principles of sourcing and authorship. Everyone who writes something is responsible for what he or she writes and is, in some sense or other, traceable. Language and literature study, it is often claimed, is democratic study par excellence and yet, the means by which teachers are compelled to teach these disciplines are faceless. This means that they are above and beyond debate.

This is exemplified by the way in which English is policed: Ofsted, Sats, GCSEs, AS and A2 levels. Unlike some of the old assessments of the past, such as CSEs and language profiling (care of the Centre for Language in Primary Education), these, too, are all instruments above and beyond debate.

Now, the method and content of English teaching is forever being discussed, in staffrooms, professional gatherings, National Association for the Teaching of English meetings or on the pages of newspapers. I have often taken part in them but I have to face the sad fact that the ministry has met this body of discussion and criticism with an absolute refusal to negotiate.

This is exemplified by the meetings that took place between Charles Clarke and the writers Chris Powling, Jamila Gavin, Philip Pullman and Bernard Ashley, a posse with decades of teaching and teacher training under its belt. Their utterly reasonable proposals concerning the reading of whole books for enjoyment, for example, were kicked into touch.

English 21 invited us to ponder on a set of issues for 10 years hence, none of which is open for discussion and debate now! Imagine being able to take part in discussions on, say, the question of the literary heritage or assessment and these would have end results in practice in two years' time.

If that sounds utopian, we can remind ourselves of one false dawn from the past: the language in the national curriculum (Linc) project.

Here was an utterly reasonable project: teachers were invited into teachers' centres to join discussions about the best practice in the teaching of language alongside a mixture of academics, advisers, inspectors and representatives of government agencies. Vast numbers of documents were produced by teachers, researching and analysing their own teaching; the beginnings of new networks of sharing practice started to emerge locally, regionally and nationally.

A new model of how to proceed with educational ideas was on the table: it acknowledged that the combined skills of the most experienced and the keenest teachers, teacher trainers, advisers, inspectors and ministry officials embodies what we mean by phrases such as: "what is worth teaching?", "why teach this?", "how should we teach that?". The whole project, costing millions of pounds, was junked and, much more importantly, the method of proceeding in this democratic way was stifled.

The procession of English 21 over the past few months through the halls and debating arenas has struck me as a hollow imitation of the Linc project. It is all fine and dandy to be talking about texting, multicultural education or oral language and I would not want to stop anyone from doing it. The cruel illusion is that these deliberations and conclusions might have even the slightest effect on the kinds of people we have seen march over English teaching in the past 10 years or so.

Michael Rosen is a children's novelist and poet. His book Dickens, His Work and His Worldis published by Walker Books,price pound;12.99

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