Magazine article English Drama Media

Lunacy, Frustration, Twits and Skeletons: Tom Rank Surveys Media Coverage of English

Magazine article English Drama Media

Lunacy, Frustration, Twits and Skeletons: Tom Rank Surveys Media Coverage of English

Article excerpt

TWITS ARE TOP OF THE CLASS

'I don't like school, Miss, especially the lunacy hour,' a primary child told his teacher, according to a recent issue of the TES. We teachers feel your pain, kid: sometimes every hour is lunacy hour for us. As our own teachers' paper, the 'more than a job' TES declared, 'Twits are top of the class'. That was not a reference to all-powerful Whitehall mandarins, even if one English teacher was quoted by the BBC as calling the Education Secretary a 'bird brain' for ordering difficult classic authors to be taught to 11 and 12-year-olds. No, the headline was celebrating a survey that showed that 'nine out of ten primary teachers read to their classes at least once a week despite,' the paper added, almost pathetically, 'the pressure of tests'.

FRUSTRATING PUZZLE OF THE LITERARY LISTS

It seems that primary teachers and pupils alike rate Roald Dahl's The Twits as the best book to read aloud. Enjoy him while you can, children--once you reach Key Stage 3, Alan Johnson wants you to read Geoffrey Chaucer, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, John Masefield, Alexander Pope and many more. Barbara Bleiman drew attention to the 'Frustrating puzzle of the literary lists' in the Times Educational Supplement: 'Jack London (born in the US and first published in 1903) is a contemporary writer ... It seems books from "different cultures" should be by "authors who are so familiar with a particular culture or country that they represent it accurately and with understanding"... Jackie Kay is British black. Meera Syal is British Asian. They are on different lists, so Ms Syal needs to be accurate about her "culture" while Ms Kay needn't bother.' Those fortunate to hear Jackie Kay at this year's NATE Conference know just how devastatingly accurate about a range of cultures she can be. Interestingly, Meera Syal mentioned the danger of becoming a set author when interviewed by The Guardian: 'I think studying a book can kill off any affection you have for it. I suppose it depends on how it's taught. My books are in the hands of the teachers now!'

Canon of classics has backfired

The media reported almost unanimous condemnation of the reading lists. NATE's Simon Gibbons remarked: 'It reads like a desert island discs of the Labour Cabinet. The idea you give these huge weighty tomes to Key Stage 3 pupils is nonsense.' Ian Brinton of the English Association told the TES: 'I would be stunned if any of these writers are taught.' Even Sir Mike Tomlinson, who had seen his own 14-19 proposals unceremoniously binned in deference to the A Level 'gold standard', called the U-turn 'very sad'. 'Canon of classics has backfired,' a TES leader declared. 'English teachers are right to insist that they know best and that they will carry on sharing with their pupils the novels they know they will enjoy. Their colleagues in other subjects should emulate them.' Once again, we're leading the way to the barricades, comrades! Predictably, QCA (which had apparently recommended dropping the lists of set authors) sat on the fence, saying there was a 'broad consensus' on studying classic authors (really?) but a 'more flexible' curriculum was essential. 'Flexible' as in extracts and decontextualised chunks, then? A DfES spokesman told the TES that certain authors were vital to a 'classic, well-rounded British education'. So it's all about that elusive virtue, Britishness, is it? No, better than that, 'the new curriculum will protect our educational heritage while creating a modern curriculum that empowers teachers and interests children.' Ah, so neatly empowering and interesting by diktat! The TES quoted the late great Ted Wragg: 'It would not be so bad if telling teachers what to do actually worked. But it doesn't.'

GATSBY ADDS GLITTER TO A LEVELS

The increased comment on English teaching in the media in the early part of this year is probably a warning of more changes on the way. NATE's voice has often been heard; EDM's own Editor commented on the new A Levels in the TES in April, relating the wider focus on context in the new examinations to his own research amongst first-year undergraduates struggling to cope with the emphasis on the cultural, political and linguistic significance of writing. …

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