NWR Issue 18


The Government has set up yet another review of the teaching of English - to the exasperation of the teaching profession. Government Ministers say they want greater emphasis on spelling, grammar, and the speaking of "standard English"; the compulsory use of phonics and reading schemes among a balance of teaching methods; and the inclusion in the national curriculum of a compulsory canon of "great works".

Small wonder then that Government is being accused of treating the national curriculum like a political football and of giving in to narrow and bigoted pressures from its own right wingers.

Leaving aside for the moment the Welsh dimension of the Government's proposals - or rather their absence - those responsible for the new review seem to be unaware that exhaustive debates have already taken place within the profession on these issues. The 1988 Kingman inquiry into the teaching of English concluded, quite rightly, that treating English as "virtually a branch of Latin, and constructing a rigid prescriptive code, rather than a dynamic description of language in use", was fair to neither pupils nor English language and literature.

The National Curriculum working party for English was chaired by Professor Brian Cox of Manchester University - a man who, by no stretch of the imagination, could be described as a left-winger in these matters. Professor Cox is the author of the Black Paper on Education which blew a whistle on some of the radical education approaches spawned during the 1960s. His working party in its recommendations published 3 years ago, set out to achieve a new consensus which combined both traditional and progressive ideas in the teaching of English.

On choice of texts for teaching in the classroom it recommended three principles. Pupils should study (a) some pre-1900 English literature and Shakespeare; (b) some texts written in English from other parts of the world (Chinua Achebe, Alice Walker, Anita Desai and Toni Morrison were quoted as examples); and (c) study texts from a wide range of literary genres. Otherwise teachers were to be left with the freedom to choose. It sought in Professor Cox's words, to strike a balance between traditional and progressive ideas.

Readers of NWR need no convincing of the value and worth of literature and creative writing. But other cultural influences now compete for the attention of the young. Books are no longer the dominant source of knowledge and entertainment. Children brought up in a world of round-the-clock television, film and video are not going to be convinced of the rewards of great literature through being forced-fed grammar and spelling by rote.

But more worrying still, the Government's action indicates that it has still not come to terms with the fact that Britain is a multi-cultural society, and heir to important works of literature other than those being promulgated by a particular section of society in the south east of England. Here in Wales, we have two literatures. Any National Curriculum which does not provide room for their
celebration is unacceptable.


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