Magazine article English Drama Media

'We Need to Reform English ...'

Magazine article English Drama Media

'We Need to Reform English ...'

Article excerpt

As we await the results of the Curriculum Review that is currently taking place, this special edition of EDM is devoted to the theme 'The Future of English'.

In an attempt at optimism, the cover shows an image of the redoubtable progressive English teacher Sarah Burton from Winifred Holtby's South Riding, played by Anna Maxwell Martin in the recent BBC TV adaptation. This under-rated novel of 1936, championed by Vera Brittain, was in part an argument for educational reform in the years before the Education Act of 1944, and in part a radical manifesto for the role of Local Education Authorities in representing and providing for communities. (The current irony of the latter will not be lost on readers, I'm sure.)

The alternative, less optimistic, choice for the cover was Mr Gradgrind in Hard Times: perhaps this would have been more appropriate, given that the spectre of Michael Gove currently hangs over any thoughts we might have about the future of the subject:

'We need to reform English. The great tradition of our literature--Dryden, Pope, Swift, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Austen, Dickens and Hardy--should be at the heart of school life ... Our literature is the best in the world--it is every child's birthright and we should be proud to teach it in every school.' (Michael Gove, Oct 2010)

I suppose that to many who don't know much about teaching or literature, but protest that they are highly concerned about both, this will sound plausible. But how are we to take seriously anything spoken by a man who claims that 'Our literature is the best in the world'? (How, for heaven's sake, does he know?! Has he read the literature of every language? And if so what comparative measures is he using to judge their relative worth?) This jingoistic nonsense means precisely nothing, but copiously demonstrates the kind of ignorance and prejudice we are expected to put up with in the person who manages our education system.

Even if we disregard such vacuous sentiments, it seems, from the references to Dryden, Pope et al., that the future of our subject might lie back in the past, in a return to the curriculum politics of the heady days (late 80s, early 90s) of Margaret Thatcher and the Centre of Policy Studies. Remember the plummy voices of Sheila Lawlor and John Marenbon forever railing against modernity on Radio 4? Remember Milton's Rasselas as a set text for Year Nine? Old-timers (like me) who lived through all that can perhaps be excused a sigh of exhausted cynicism.

The National Curriculum Review that is currently taking place promises a 'slimmed-down curriculum'. The current curriculum is, according to Gove, 'bloated with prescriptive detail about how to teach and empty rhetoric [takes one to know one, (ed.)] about what teaching should achieve' but 'thin on actual knowledge'. The prospect of a smaller curriculum, along with the end of National Strategy requirements and the passing of SATs is, in some senses, to be welcomed--but at what cost? And what is the 'actual knowledge' (facts, facts, facts?) that Gove's new curriculum will prescribe? I am trying to be optimistic, but a little voice in my head is chanting 'Be afraid; be very afraid.'

The Future of English

As I was beginning to consider what EDM should do to mark the end of the Strategies and the launch of the Curriculum Review, I received a very welcome email from Geoff Barton and Geoff Dean, two leading commentators on our subject, expressing the desire to commission a range of voices in the English community to write about their hopes for the future of English, and asking whether EDM would host this project. I happily agreed, and would like to thank Geoff and Geoff for the work that they've done in curating the impressive array of opinion pieces, under the title The Future of English, which forms the centrepiece of this edition.

It has been fascinating to see the different approaches that writers--from ordinary classroom teachers to professors of Education--have taken to the assignment; indeed the variety of styles and perspectives adds extra interest to the exercise. …

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