Standardisation? The National Curriculum and Assessment

Notes from English and Its Teachers by Simon Gibbons (2017)

In this chapter Gibbons presents the changes to English during the period of the 20 years-long Conservative government. His starting point is the 1988 Kingman Report and the introduction of the National Curriculum, the first attempt at prescribing the context of English teaching. It was a centrally-driven, top-down reform. This is the period where English teachers’ influence over policy waned and there developed a growing sense of deprofessionalisation. It saw the removal of 100% coursework and the introduction of national testing at 14.

  • Introduction of the National Curriculum in late 1980s and subsequent action saw the “progressive, personal growth model of English” come under attack from both Left and Right. The relentless pressure caused fundamental changes to the way English was “framed” and taught. Those resisting change were marginalised.
  • “The dual weapons of curriculum and assessment, reinforced by an increasingly oppressive accountability framework manifested in school league tables, perfomance targets and Ofsted inspection, threatened for many English teachers what they considered to be the good practice that had evolved through previous decades.”
    • Callaghan’s Ruskin College speech in 1976 seen as the “starting pistol” for “the long race towards the first National Curriculum”.
    • Abolition of the Schools Council in 1982.
    • “where there was a focus on education in the early years ofThatcher’s administration it was predominantly on
      advancing policies that would serve to bring the market into education, and to lessen the influence and scope of the Local Education Authorities”
    • Not until 1988 Education Act that “the spotlight was shone directly on curriculum”
    • In mid-1980s, HMI published Curriculum Matters papers (“forerunners to the National Curriculum”). Gibbons claims these were “in many ways strikingly imaginative in their approach to curriculum” and that the ideas were “in no way at odds with the kind of progressive, child-centred model of English that, for many, had by the mid-1980s assumed the place of an orthodox approach to the teaching of the subject”. Points out that one pamphlet regarded English as an “art”.
    • English from 5-16 had an “open and democratic tone”.
    • English 5-16: “In terms of the development of a National Curriculum for English, then, this
      was no bad starting point. The pupil was being placed at the very centre of learn­ing in the subject, the complexity of the discipline was acknowledged and there was a strong sense of consultation and communication in the development of what
      might at some point become policy. As the National Curriculum became a reality, however, this democratic spirit seemed to be steadily eroded; relatively quickly
      policymakers seemed to realise that, in terms of English at least, dialogue with the profession would be unlikely to lead to consensus, and it would be even less likely to lead to an agreement on the kind of version of the subject that successive Conservative governments apparently wanted – a back-to-basics approach that would reverse the perceived, but never really evidenced, fall in standards which, it
      was alleged by those on the right of the political spectrum, accompanied the introduction of progressive methods from the 1960s and was a product of comprehensivisation.”

    • Sir John Kingman chaired report committee. Kingman was a mathematician. President of the Royal Statistical Society. Committee did consult widely. ▾ Kingman report’s recommendations included:
    • training of all new teachers in knowledge about language
    • all NQTs should engage in a language study relevant to their subject specialism
    • called for establishment of a National Language Project (came to fruition in LINC).
    • Department of Education’s response was to call report “interesting”.
    • NATE welcomed report but saw its conception of language as inadequate. Also challenged the prescriptive view of language teaching (citing no evidence). [Stubbs says that there is little evidence that direct language teaching improves children’s English.] NATE concerned that study of language for its own sake in a crowded curriculum would prevent children developing competence as language users.

    • Kingman Report “quickly superseded” by English for Ages 5-16, the first version of the NC.
    • Statutory orders drafted by committee led by Prof Brian Cox (one of the key authors of Black Papers).
    • Suggests that Cox had some sympathies for progressive education. “it was clear from English for Ages 5-16 that Cox’s view on English showed some real appreciation of the complexities of tire subject and of varying perspectives held by the profession on the aims of English and what it should be to children”. ▾ Cox encapsulated complexities of aims of English as “views” which became “Cox’s model”:
      • personal growth
      • cross-curricular
      • adult needs
      • cultural heritage
      • cultural analysis
    • Shakespeare given only statutory place
    • Document was a mix of prescription and descriptive. “It invited English teachers to consider these debates and in doing so reassured them that there was not an attempt to simplify the complexity of the subject”.
    • “In fact, Cox considered that the ideas on teaching English from Bullock, Kingman and his own curriculum could be seen as ‘an organic growth’ (Cox, 1995, p. 190). If that were indeed true then Cox’s curriculum would rightly be looked on as progressive and, to a large extent, in tune with the progressive ideas about English that had been evolving over theprevious three decades.”
    • “many English teachers now view the Cox curriculum as a humane and principled attempt to set out both an inclusive rationale for English and a broad and balanced subject content, with many italicised sections of the document offering helpful guidance to support the statutory orders”
    • Harold Rosen – Teaching London Kids (magazine) – opposed to “this” National Curriculum.
    • NATE welcomed aspectes of English 5-16, particularly how it handled standard English – but criticised circumscribing performance in English with a linear scale of levels. “The progressive view of English adopted as NATE’s orthodoxy viewed the English curriculum as recursive, a spiral curriculum where children continually return to key ideas and concepts and deepening understanding.”
    • “In a sense, that Cox’s curriculum was widely
      welcomed by the profession may have been as much due to a sense of relief at what it wasn’t as a celebration of what it was, and the affinity’ to Cox’s view of English was no doubt heightened by subsequent events – the passing of time and future curriculum rewrites certainly influenced many English teachers’ judgement of Cox and his curriculum.”

    • Policymakers quickly revised the English orders.
    • National Curriculum English: The Case for Revising the Order (1992). Gibbons describes it as “a curious read”. “There are clear messages in the document about the areas of English Cox was deemed to have failed in properly forefronting; the teaching of initial reading and the specification of named literary figures featured, but once again attention to grammar and Standard English remained the strongest areas of criticism.”
    • Brian Cox – Cox on the Battle for the English Curriculum (1995).
    • Cox pointed out that ministers gave key positions in the NCC and SEAC to supporters of conservative thinking on education (John Marenbon, Sheila Lawlor and John Marks – members of the Centre for Policy Studies). Gibbons points out that Cox is not unbiased in his accounts and attempts to salvage his own reputation and legacy.
    • David Pascall, “a chemical engineer” oversaw drafting of new orders.
    • “The contrast between the Pascall and the Cox curricula was stark; the earlier document highlighted the complexities and ambiguities of the subject, whereas the latter offered certainties, perhaps most wonderfully encapsulated in the heavily value-laden
      and deeply questionable assertion ‘Standard English is characterised by the correct use of vocabulary and grammar’”.
    • Pascall’s view was more in tune with ministers: a back-to-basics approach to reading and writing, speaking and listening.

    • Consultation process suggested that English teachers were largely satisfied with Cox version of NC.
    • “The changes it generated were minimal – the
      most notable was probably the simplifying ofthe writing attainment target so that the proposed separate strands for ‘grammar’, ’spelling’ and ‘punctuation’ were
      removed. Embedding the technical elements of written English into a broader notion of written composition was a welcome reversal, but the final draft was not
      so vastly different from Pascall’s. However, the knowledge that things could have been worse may have muted the protests that resulted on its publication.”
    • 1995 version of NC was slimmed down. No introductory paragraph on the purposes or aims of the subject.
    • Now a prescribed list of authors introduced.
    • Subject associations claimed that their views were not being listened to. A cosmetic exercise.
    • According to Cox only one practising English teacher on the SCAA English consultative committee. (There were others: advisors and head teachers.)
    • The “givens” of the revised NC were: grammar/standard English, literary canon, Shakespeare and bilingualism.
    • Chris Woodhead denied there had been ministerial interference in the final order (anonymously authored).
    • “Despite the apparent lack of enthusiasm for the curriculum rewrite, and despite the many objections to the new programmes of study, there was no particular
      protest as the orders were phased in during the mid-1990s. This may have been because English teachers considered that they would be able to sustain good practice in spite ofstatutory orders, or it may have been an indication ofthe erosion of the
      profession’s belief that any power it had to influence the direction of policy was being steadily eroded.

    • “The story of the LINC project is perhaps the most astonishing example of the Conservative government’s
      attempt to control the teaching of English language in schools, and a striking example of their failure to do this in the face of an English teaching community
      that – whilst it may not have been intentionally subversive – was not going to accept any simple approach to the teaching of grammar and Standard English.”
    • LINC set up under the direct control of the DfE and materials to exemplify the Kingman model of language.
    • “The grand plan, however, failed spectacularly.”
    • John Richmond – Unstable Materials (English and Media Magazine): mistakes: appointment of Ron Carter and to allow LEAs to have a say in the appointment of experts to lead LINC work (resulting in a “ragbag of people of the worst sort”).
    • LINC materials split into two sections covering topics like: early language, the process of writing, accent dialogue and standard English and multiculturalism.
    • “The materials offered a comprehensive and complex view of language and its forms, and it’s certain that a teacher engaging with them would have their own subject knowledge for teaching enhanced. Sadly, the majority of English teachers did not have the opportunity to access the LINC project training. Despite revisions made by Ron Carter, the government took the decision not to publish the final LINC materials, and further than that it refused to
      waive its copyright, thus meaning that interested commercial publishers would not be at liberty to run with the material.”
    • DfE did allow the LINC material to be used in-service education.

    • “it was assessment that brought English teachers and the policymakers into direct conflict in the 1990s”
    • 100% coursework removed in 1994.
    • National testing for students at 14 was due to be introduced in 1993. Ken Baker set up the Task Group on Assessment (TGAT) in 1987 chaired by Paul Black.
    • TGAT report in 1987 stressed need for national testing to be predominately formative. Warned against using data for league tables.
    • English tests Anthology was a significant issue. “Clearly significant numbers of English teachers felt this imposition of a hand-picked collection of texts was an affront to their own professionalism, and that it had the potential to very radically change the nature of classroom practice and the curriculum.”
    • Gibbons says that the Anthology was something “a particular type of educated conservative thought it would be good for children to read”
    • Testing of Shakespeare through focus on s single scene and levelling children’s achievement also contributed to English teachers’ anger.
    • LATE led campaign. Brian Cox claimed: “teaching to get high marks in the SATs will be bad teaching”.
    • Unions took over campaign and called for boycott on grounds of workload. John Hickman argues this was a mistake.
    • Boycott’s effects: Anthology disappeared, John Marenbon chair of SEAC resigned.
    • Boycott viewed as a short-lived victory by English teachers.
    • “The boycott of Key Stage 3 testing demonstrated English teachers could still
      wield some collective power. This would not be allowed to happen again. The LATE-inspired campaign to boycott the SATs remains, however, the last teacher-led
      movement to effectively cause a change in policy. For that, if for nothing else, it should be celebrated.”