Why did we have to lose the clarity?

16th July 2004 at 01:00
Bill Steven gives his final thoughts on English as a teacher who has watched the subject struggle since 1967

English teaching is a much more sophisticated business than it was in 1967, unfortunately. One would not decry attempts to raise standards, but a lot of the vexation along the way was avoidable and some of it positively undesirable. Teachers as well as pupils need tramlines. There may be grind in routines but they are also reassuring and ensure that tasks are generally straightforward. A subject adviser friend said in the early 1970s that curriculum development should be pitched at the average teacher.

At times an enlarged workload was presented on the grounds of two insufficiently examined claims: "It reflects good practice" and "You're doing it anyway." Also highly ambivalent have been the cries "Let's not reinvent the wheel", as wheel upon wheel was produced, and "Keep it simple" - usually some hope, since it tended to be an exhortation from persons making unreasonable demands.

In 1967, there were popular, well-constructed English course books, jettisoned in the 1970s as the view evolved that their sense of development was spurious. How the sense of development in the dismembered units of work teachers got into the habit of constructing was not also spurious beats me.

What a rod teachers constructed with which to beat their backs, as Banda and Gestetner gave way to photocopier and computer, encouraging the DIY addiction.

A golden age of children's literature has meant ample choice for class readers and personal reading. It is sad, however, that there has been a preoccupation with social realism. Kes (1968) has it in abundance but still manages a warmth. Excessive bleakness inhabits too much of the literature we teach. Children deserve happiness also. This can be a matter of treatment as much as content. An uncle can murder your father, marry your mother, with both of you dying in a final bloodbath, yet still uplift.

A librarian in an American high school was asked by a pupil for help in choosing a novel. "Sure, what's your problem?" (Dysfunctional family? Drugs?) At the same time a kind of loose existentialism has inhabited too much of the literary study: a preoccupation with titles and themes involving conflict and identity. Seeking a very personal reaction in critical responses to literature is in a similar vein.

Standard grade English was built on a rock of reliable grade-related criteria - 5-14 language, by comparison, was built on sand.

No wonder there has been a shambles over what a level means - made worse by politics. I asked the late Robbie Robertson, architect of the 5-14?? document, if, for instance, a child sent to Mrs so-and-so to say the coffee was ready and "does she want sugar?" was an example of level E talk strand 1 when an infant could manage that.

My colleagues are dismayed at the prospect of Standard grade being abolished if Higher Still creeps down - fair enough with Access courses to meet the needs of social inclusion, but throwing out the splendid achievements of the Standard grade talk and writing curricula is absurd.

The Higher Still shambles has been well exposed. The latest edition of the Arrangements (the fourth?) is described as the "first edition". Orwell would smile. After the axe was taken to the course on the last occasion (don't bother to tell me it was in response to the need to reduce workload), what a rump remains. We will rue the day the Higher report exercise was removed. No wonder universities are screaming.

It had grown to absurd proportions and was a taxing proposition for educated adults, never mind good 16-year-olds. Reverting to the shorter reports originally intended (1971: 240 words; 1996: 1,156 words) would be reasonable and meet the crying need for good functional writing in young adults, while keeping the dogs at bay. The close reading at Higher level also grew arms and legs: 390 words in 1957, 560 in 1971, 1,150 in 1985, 2,600 in the first Higher Still exemplar - all for the same passport to university. Don't tell me the standard is unwavering.

When I published an article in 1982 in Teaching English, explaining the kind of concepts that were being ignored in current practice, eyebrows were raised. I was unorthodox. My Standard grade syllabus, vetted by a politically correct principal teacher on behalf of Strathclyde Region, had (uniquely?) a list of such concepts.

Meanwhile the norm for reading was mere paraphrase and, of course, terminology had gone out the window. In some schools, use of terms for parts and figures of speech was forbidden. Terminology eventually returned (with a vengeance?), by way of pendulum swing perhaps.

With the 1970s came ignorance of biographical and social background.

Mentioning that a book was published in 1937 and that the writer was also a screenwriter or that there was occupational upheaval in 1930s California would have resulted in "irrelevant" being indicated by a marker.

Still, I'm happy to have got the T-shirt, inscribed "English teaching OK - with qualifications".

Bill Steven is a retired teacher of English.

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