War-weary sides call for truce

12th January 1996 at 00:00
Peter Hollindale considers why English became such a controversial subject. THE CHALLENGE OF ENGLISH IN THE NATIONAL CURRICULUM. Edited by Robert Protherough and Peter King Routledge Pounds 11.99

One day a serious analysis will need to be performed to explain why English in particular became such a stormy battleground in the process of establishing a national curriculum. No other subject has attracted such a battery of amateur political interference, or been subjected to such quango-led manipulations, or excited such displays of ignorance and prejudice.

Protherough and King suggest that "the only clear result has been the politicising of English teachers", but their contributors show that the subject itself has been politicised irreversibly.

When the battle comes finally to be reviewed, this book will be a useful document, not least because it has a split personality. Spread widely among the contributions is a sense of war-weary relief that, in the wake of Dearing and more especially the 1995 English in the National Curriculum, there is at last a period of truce and disengagement in which the profession can re-group and English teachers can address the task of blending national curriculum requirements with the best of former practice.

Some people see this as a chance to subvert the political taskmasters, and the word "subversion" has at times been headily misapplied. This books presents the opportunity to distinguish clearly between subversion and professional reappraisal, because it offers both.

Each chapter asks a question which has surfaced frequently at Inset meetings for English teachers. How do we teach pre-20th century literature? How do we teach grammar? How can we teach Shakespeare? What use are the new technologies? What is left of drama and media? And so on. Contributors provide an overview of their chosen question as it stands after Dearing, and then give specific examples of practical methodological responses that might be introduced to the classroom.

Chief of the subversives is Nick Peim, whose chapter "Key Stage 4: back to the future?" argues for a deconstructive approach not only to the literary text but to the subject of English itself.

He suggests that the liberal progressive assumptions of English teaching had much more in common with the traditionalist beliefs of the national curriculum's post-Cox revisers than is commonly admitted, and that the relative ease with which, despite professional protests, the new constraints have been accommodated stands as proof of that.

He urges English teachers to abandon their self-deluding myth of earlier enlightenment, and radically redefine the subject to absorb new theories of language and textuality.

Casting English teachers as closet conservatives, Peim asks "what the position was of those who were clamouring for more media studies to be included within English while they remained silent about the compromised category of literature." This topic is addressed by another subversive, Nick McGuinn, whose chapter on drama and media includes an outline media studies project on Shakespeare. This ingenious piece of work, designed with mischievous amusement to thwart the most curmudgeonly OFSTED inspector, is a deliberate act of ideological retaliation against the national curriculum's endorsement of Shakespeare as a national icon. There is a direct collision of political agendas here. Pleasure in Shakespeare falls victim to both.

In contrast with such radical views are chapters written by practising classroom teachers. Some of these appear to bear out Peim's suspicions, without seeming any the worse for it. John Haddon's approach to Shakespeare, which, as he acknowledges owes much to the Shakespeare and Schools Project, will win key stage 3 pupils to enjoyment of Shakespeare just as surely as McGuinn's will turn them off, and Jane Lodge and Paul Evans present a beautifully lucid and persuasive humanisation of grammar teaching.

On the whole the teachers in school are orthodox builders on national curriculum opportunity, while the lecturers are radical questioners of the subject's definition. "What is English?" is the question, and this useful book sets out our choice of answers.

Peter Hollindale is senior lecturer in English and Education at the University of York

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