by John Richmond
The National Curriculum for English then…
In the late 1980s, when the idea of a National Curriculum was proposed, I welcomed the principle that all children and young people in state schools have a common entitlement to a range of knowledge, understanding, competences and skills in the major school subjects.
The first version of the National Curriculum for English was over-detailed and contained some absurdities, notably to do with its system of 10 attainment levels. But there was also much to welcome: the document demonstrated an overall understanding that the learning and use of language by producers and receivers is essentially to do with the making of meaning. It disappointed the government of the day, which had seen it as an opportunity to return classroom practice to an imagined golden past in which ‘rigour’ had prevailed: a time before the spread of sloppy, optimistic notions of ‘creativity’ which the so-called ‘education establishment’ was supposed to have smuggled into schools more recently.
We knew then and we know now that dualisms like ‘rigour versus creativity’, slogans like ‘back to basics’, bandied about by Secretaries of State for Education then and since, have no basis in reality. Language, possibly the most advanced and delicate of human inventions, is both profoundly creative and profoundly structural. In spite of and in wilful opposition to this simple central insight, governments of all colours since 1989 have kept returning to the site of their disappointment, determined to impose an English curriculum freighted with detailed instructions to do with method. We have come to the point, in the current version, where teachers are effectively treated as machine operators, given sets of instructions narrowly related to method, and told to follow them. This is a woeful state of affairs.
Moreover, some of the most important instructions in the current orders are wrong:
- Young children do not become fluent readers as a result of the exclusive application of only one method of teaching reading – the conscious internalisation of long lists of grapho-phonic correspondences.
- They do not become correct spellers by learning dozens of abstract spelling rules from the age of 5.
- They do not acquire grammatical competence in speech and writing by being introduced early to heavy loads of abstract grammatical concepts and terminology.
If there are sins of commission in the new orders, there are also sins of omission or inadequacy.
- The whole of the spoken English language, from Year 1 to Year 6, is dealt with in an undifferentiated 132 words.
- The orders decisively turn their back on the multi-modal, digital, electronic world of information, communication and entertainment in which almost all children and young people now participate.
- Media education has been expunged.
- The references to drama in the orders carry no coherence laterally – to do with the range of dramatic activities which a learner should be encountering at a particular Key Stage – nor any sense of progression chronologically.
Failings in tests and examinations
Failings in the curriculum orders are matched by failings in assessment arrangements.
- The Year 1 phonics check, with its absurd requirement that children should sound out words that don’t exist, fails to appreciate what succeeding readers can do, and to detect what failing readers can’t. Learning to read is a more complex process than the assignment of regular phonic responses to regular graphic signals, necessary and useful as that part of a reader’s equipment is.
- The testing arrangements at Year 6 dismember the whole, complex activities of reading and writing by testing grammar, punctuation and spelling separately from them. From the summer of 2016, this incoherence will be replicated at Year 2.
- Coursework has been abolished at GCSE and its weighting at A-level reduced, despite clear evidence of the value of developing habits of independent study in older students.
- At GCSE, students’ achievement in the spoken language no longer counts towards the main grade in English Language.
One piece of good news (April 2016) is that the government has abandoned its proposals for compulsory baseline assessment at the beginning of a child’s reception year. A broadly good assessment instrument for the Early Years already exists: the Early Years Foundation Stage profile, which has been in operation in one form or another since 2003. The profile, perhaps in a simpler form, with fewer separate learning goals, could and should continue to be used as an account of children’s achievements and needs at the end of the reception year, to be handed on to the children’s teachers at Year 1.
In response to these shortcomings, the United Kingdom Literacy Association (UKLA), the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE), the National Association of Advisers in English (NAAE) and the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE), along with an independent school-improvement agency Owen Education, have published Curriculum and Assessment in English 3 to 19: A Better Plan. This free online resource now exists as six PDFs on several websites: for example, at https://ukla.org/resources/details/curriculum-and-assessment-in-english-3-to-19-a-better-plan
One of the PDFs proposes an entire alternative English curriculum 3 to 16, deriving its principles from the work of those who have thought most deeply and written most persuasively about how effective language development in English occurs.
Another PDF criticises aspects of current and anticipated assessment arrangements 3 to 19, while proposing alternatives. These alternatives are not ‘anti-testing’: for example, they propose tests of reading and writing, understood as whole, complex activities, at Year 2 and Year 6, to be selected by teachers from an on-line bank of tasks, and assessed by teachers with external moderation. At GCSE, we propose the re-introduction of an element of coursework, and the rehabilitation of the spoken language as a fully recognised element of a student’s language competence.
A desirable consensus
It should have been possible nearly 30 years ago, and it should be possible now, to achieve a consensus uniting professionals and the government on the question of how children and young people come to learn English most effectively. That is the purpose of these initiatives. I hope that readers of this article will look at the PDFs, and circulate them widely if they find them useful. I would be happy to respond to any comment on them at email@example.com
John Richmond was a classroom English teacher in two London secondary schools. Later, he was advisory teacher for English in the Inner London Education Authority; he helped to run two national curriculum-development projects – the National Writing Project and the Language in the National Curriculum Project; and he was adviser for English and drama in Shropshire. He has published books and articles on English teaching and the role of language in learning, and run courses and given lectures throughout the UK and internationally. He has been a Visiting Professor in the School of English at the University of Nottingham. Between 1992 and 2011 he worked in educational television, at Channel 4 and Teachers TV in the UK and at Teaching Channel in the USA.
Reclaiming Schools intends to publish extracts from and comments on this invaluable resource in the coming months.