What is English for?

Notes from Making Meaning in English by David Didau (2021)

Chapter 1: What is English for?

This chapter presents the current state of English, drawing on its history as a school subject to explain how and why English seems “lost” as a school subject with teachers ignorant of its past and the triumph of pragmatism (functional) English over any progressive or idealistic aspirations for the subject. It’s effective in showing how confusing central government has been on teaching. (It’s interesting that Simon Gibbons or Margaret Mathieson aren’t in Didau’s bibliography as they present the history of English teaching from different perspectives other than official documentation, Arnold, Leavis and Holbrook. The history of English teaching is far richer and brimming with forgotten ideas and approaches than conveyed in this chapter.)

  • Didau asks what does English seek to achieve? His view is that different ideas about English “have pulled the subject in a number of competing directions” which he believes make it difficult to be unified in a commonly-agreed purpose.
  • Draws on George Sampson: “Yet it is in beauty and love and joy and laughter that we must find the way of speaking to the soul — the soul, that does not appear in the statistics and is therefore always left out of account.” Didau sees the tension between “pragmatism” and “soul” as being central to the purposes of English. Later in this chapter he refers to Sampson’s English for the English and the desire not to educate children as “tame and acquiescent ‘labour fodder'”.
  • Points out that the debates about English are simplistically reduced to “traditional” and “progressive” (or the “pragmatic” and the “idealistic”).
  • Didau presents his view of the purpose of English: it should “exist to enlarge and extend children’s capacity to think about the world”, “both recognise and value the many varieties of English but also induct students into the opportunities afforded by the mastery of standard English”, “the emphasis should be on written forms”, formal exams are “the fairest way to ensure disadvantaged children are not further disadvantaged”, “need both grammatical descriptions and metalinguistic knowledge in order to think flexibly about the use of English”, give children access to the canon, view the National Curriculum as a “minimum standard” and recognise ” although the subject derives from a dominant cultural identity, multicultural differences enrich and enlarge the English language and its literature”.
  • Didau sees the idealistic approaches to teaching English “roundly defeated by the forces of pragmatism”.
  • Didau comes across as dismissive of any progressive agenda for English at all: “Today some English teachers are more concerned with ‘developing radicalism’ than they are in overcoming the real injustice that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are disproportionately more likely to fail to learn to read and write fluently than their more affluent peers.”
  • In response to English being “lost”, Didau points out that teachers should know the history of their subject. He goes on to give a brief overview of the history of English as a school subject (though almost exclusively restricted to official reports and documentation):
    • Matthew Arnold’s reports as inspector of schools
    • The 1870 Education Act (and presents the standards)
    • The 1921 Newbolt Report: “Many practices that have become the norm today began life in the Newbolt Report through such recommendations as the idea that children should be taught to speak standard English using phonetics; that children should be practised, not only in the art of speaking and reading, but also in the art of listening; the centrality of oral work as the foundation on which proficiency in the writing of English is based; and that exams should focus on English as a means of communication rather than on grammatical analysis and spelling. The report also recommended the reading and acting of plays, and that the teaching of literature should include reading aloud and dramatic performances.”
    • F.R. Leavis and Cambridge English: “Leavis was opposed to the Victorian idea that appreciation of literature should be “the direct expression of simple emotions”14 and instead saw the purpose of studying literature as developing students’ intellectual and imaginative faculties in order to make critical judgements. Leavis argued that appreciation of literature led to a growth of intelligence and sensibility that marked the educated out from a debased majority, corrupted by the evils of democratic industrial society.”
    • (When presenting Leavis’ views, Didau appears to argue that English doesn’t have a civilising influence, drawing on Steiners’ critique of High Culture post-Holocaust: “One of the big claims for studying English – that it makes us more empathetic, more rounded human beings – falters in the face of such damning evidence.”)
    • Bullock Report (A Language for Life) and its recommendations about learning about language. Didau dips into the “grammar wars” and the difference between descriptive and prescriptive. He also points out that: “Bullock had no meaningful advice for English teachers about what to do in the classroom.”
    • David Holbrook: “Holbrook was less interested in promoting a national lit-erary culture where people read and know books, but was concerned with English as a mechanism for populating society with people who think, reflect and use language as a means to explore identity and the wider world.
    • The Kingman Report.
    • The Cox Report and The National Curriculum: “The Cox Report decided that it was impossible to specify exactly what the subject should be composed of, and instead settled for offering guiding principles to help teachers make better decisions. Cox saw the danger of polarised views on what English teaching should be and consequently the National Curriculum for English was always intended as a compromise between extreme positions.”
    • OFSTED between 2009 and 2012 (“These reports sum up the orthodoxy on English teaching throughout the first decade of the 21st century”). Didau shows how OFSTED played a confusing role in English. He points out that methods of teaching were perceived as more important that what was taught. The result of OFSTED’s role was: “In other words, as there was (and still is) no established consensus on what English was or should be, it was incumbent on English departments to work this out for themselves, presumably with help from their pupils. In this shared vision, anything “inappropriate or dull” should be swapped out for what is relevant and exciting. In the best schools, pupils were “stimulated” and teaching “engaged all the senses.” Rather than establishing a curriculum founded on subject expertise and the underlying concepts that open up the subject, effective departments were considered to be those that continually reinvented themselves with whatever was new and exciting.” (Didau particularly emphasises how OFSTED positively praised active, engaging and fun lessons during this period.)
    • OFSTED recently (which has “altered sharply”). No lesson gradings, no judgements on “Teaching and Learning”, “a new appreciation of evidence from cognitive science has led to an acknowledgement that children need to learn knowledge”.
    • Gove’s reforms. The 2015 “knowledge-rich” curriculum which marks a “clear change of intent” and “By the time we reach 2015, however, there is a growing concern to ensure that teachers of English deliver what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called ‘cultural capital,’ to provide a common, ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum to all students.”
  • Didau asks six questions about the nature of the English curriculum involving subject knowledge, falling into rote learning, how assessments and progress are judged, what skills are needed and connections with other subjects.
  • Among Didau’s answer to the question of what is English for is that it’s more than just adding knowledge. It’s “an attempt to confront young people with something beautiful, moving and profound” plus ” we should also value children’s ability to think critically and creatively”. He ends the chapter echoing George Sampson.