New Labour, New Policies

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

In Chapter 5, Gibbons focuses on New Labour’s impact on English. The Labour government sought to tackle the underachievement of poorer children. This was when I started teaching and remember all too well the exhausting period of the National Strategies. Gibbons examines how schools were directed to look at boys’ performance, the radical impact of the National Literacy Strategy on primary schools and its KS3 counterpart (objectives-led lessons with a focus on non-fiction genres). The impression given is that the £4 billion Strategy had limited impact. Finally, Gibbons presents the QCA as attempting to develop a discursive relationship with English teachers – mainly through the English 21 project.

  • Gibbons argues that New Labour’s focus was on under-attainment and the link between poor educational performance and deprivation.
  • “Whatever history makes of the New Labour years, it is difficult not to believe that the focus on educa­tion was in part an attempt to address the huge underachievement of certain groups of children in England, most notably those from socially deprived backgrounds.”
  • “There was a recognition, perhaps overtly for the first time, that the real scandal of the English education system was the huge tail of under­-achievement.”
  • OFSTED’s Boys and English report (1993): girls did better than boys. The report had “some relatively bland central findings”.
  • A SCAA Boys and English working group established.
  • Publications:
    • Can Do Better: Raising Boys’ Achievement in English (1998)
    • Yes He Can: Schools Where Boys Write Well (2003)
  • “boys tended to be treated as a homogeneous mass, with phrases like ‘the average boy’ – whatever that meant – being commonly employed”.
  • “A less-than-benign view of the inspectorate and curriculum authorities would suggest that gender was a convenient area around which to focus the debate about underachievement. Effectively this placed the onus for remedial action in the hands of English teachers. Recognising socio-economic factors as contributory to underachievement might legitimately result in a call for government action, but there was nothing government could do about gender.”
  • “data on differing groups of pupils’ attain­ment became progressively sophisticated” led to reports:
    • Mapping Race, Class and Gender (2000)
  • “The links between low levels of literacy and a dysfunctional society did perhaps illustrate there was some element of a social, as well as economic, agenda in the New Labour programme for education.”


  • “Nowhere was the New Labour focus on education more pronounced than in the domain of English.”
  • A “radical shift” saw Literacy replacing English in primary schools.
  • NLS launched in 1998 and was the “main plank” of the government’s strategy to transform the teaching of reading and writing (it was a product of both New Labour and Conservative policies).
  • Features of the NLS:
    • a framework of “almost innumerable” objectives
    • a “Literacy Hour”
    • “in what was the major shift in central intervention”: recommended teaching approaches
    • a “genre-based” approach to the teaching of literacy
    • supported by an infrastructure that saw regional directors monitor local authorities who employed teams of literacy consultants (supposedly non-statutory but schools were forced to “buy into” this pyramid scheme).
    • challenging targets set for expected numbers of children to attain Level 4 at the end of KS3 (David Blunkett vowed to resign if targets not met by fourth year of NLS).
  • “It was without doubt the largest centrally driven intervention into teaching in England, and it is difficult to say what the total cost was, given the numbers of staff and the volume of training material generated.” (Seems to suggest over £1 billion.)
  • “It is difficult to say with any certainty how effective the NLS was.”
  • “The NLS did, however, have a profound impact on the nature of teaching of English in a large number of primary schools; of this there can be little doubt. A new vocabulary was added to the teacher’s lexicon – starters, plenaries, text types, word level – and for many children, English was no longer what was taught in the primary schools, instead it was literacy.”
  • Surprise at how many primary teachers followed NLS instructions. Teachers “toed the line” because of poor test results and because a majority of primary teachers did not have English degrees.
  • “Without a strongly informed alternative view, and with increasing pressure from
  • schools, local authorities, and central government, it is not difficult to see why the NLS had such impact at the primary level; if for whatever reason the children in your class were going to fail to reach the expected level in the SATs then at least if they failed following the prescribed advice then as a teacher you couldn’t be entirely blamed. Although the NLS was never statutory, for a teacher to pursue an alternative vision for the teaching of reading and writing was to put herself in a position of huge vulnerability. There were teachers who had this strength of belief in their own knowledge, but they were in the minority.”


  • In 2000 a Secondary National Strategy was agreed with a specific English strand.
  • “In some ways the plans for the secondary English strategy mirrored the NLS; there would be a framework of objectives across the years of Key Stage 3, training material for English departments, and a veritable army of consultants employed by the Strategy and working through the local authorities to deliver training and offer support to schools. Also, pedagogies recommended through the NLS were extended to the secondary sector – particularly exploring texts at word, sentence and text level, and using shared, modelled and guided approaches in the teaching of reading and writing. There was not a literacy hour as such, but a recommended four-part lesson structure – beginning with a starter and ending with a plenary. There was much more explicit rhetoric about teaching, as opposed to learning, with whole-class teaching being strongly recommended as a central approach. Implicit was the suggestion that some ofthe failings of pupils in English resulted from the progressive methods of group work, investigation and explora­tory learning; there needed to be a re-emphasis on the teacher as the expert and a shift away from a child-centred pedagogy.”
  • Many English teachers saw this as turning English into literacy. Literature “did not really play any meaningful part in the Framework”.
  • The Strategy’s approach to writing inspired by the work of Donald Graves (Gibbons suggests that English teaching of writing was through osmosis: let it happen and teach through correction).
  • Aspects of teaching that were controversial in the profession (grammar, spelling) were introduced. Gibbons suggests that secondary English teachers saw teaching spelling as a primary school task.
  • ” the implication of a new way of working and a recommended pedagogy was that English teachers had got it wrong”.
  • Data on significant student progress in English suggested that “was something rotten in the state of English teaching”. Implication of the “process model” of writing was that the “growth model” was failing.


  • Most English teachers associated their view of English with the “growth model” articulated by Cox. (” This model was a progressive one, with an emphasis on the student’s own language development, autobiographical writing and the reading of relevant literature. It was decidedly child centred.”)
  • Strategy approach was “objective-focused, teacher-led lessons” with teaching that focused on “non­-fiction genres and prioritised technical aspects of language use rather than expres­sion”.
  • Key Stage 3 English: Roots and Research (2002, Harrison) published. Gibbons describes it as an “interesting read”. It struggled to find evidence to support focus on grammar teaching. David Crystal likened it to suggesting that a mechanic ought to be a better driver because she knows the parts of an engine. Grammar is an area of “acute sensitivity” for English teachers.
  • Gibbons describes Harrison’s treatment of the Strategy’s writing pedagogy. Drew of Australian genre theorists. Mentions Cope and Kalantzis’ project on disadvantaged children’s writing. Gibbons shows how the findings from one project are over-extended.
  • “Perhaps most interesting about Roars and Research is the overall impression one gets from reading it. One doesn’t come away with the impression that the research was done prior to the implementation of the Strategy and that the resulting policy decisions were informed with a strong, coherent, underpinning vision for English. Rather the document seems to treat each element of the Strategy in isolation and find snippets of research to back the approach in that particular area. This cherry picking, one might even say manipulation, of research was a feature of both the primary and secondary strategies.”
  • Roots and Research “failed to convince” secondary English teachers.


  • “Parti­cularly for teachers who had a notion of a progressive model of English, the new approaches seemed a particular affront; hardly surprising since its roots were in genre pedagogies in Australia and here the ideas were developed in response to a sense that progressive methods in that country’s English classrooms were failing children from less literate family backgrounds. Somewhere in the genesis of this attempt to reframe English was an assault on progressive pedagogy.”
  • Local authorities perceived to be underachieving “were dealt with more firmly”.
  • The “driving force” of the strategy was the performance of underachieving groups.
  • Gives an account of training by John Wilks, a head of English in Tower Hamlets: no space for discussion or debate, the “right way” to teach – “specifically focussing on text types in the teaching of writing” – was set out. Wilks saw the basis of the strategy as “anti-intellectual” and genre theory “limiting”.
  • Literacy Across the Curriculum (2001) was published. Almost monthly folders sent to English departments.
  • Some “genuinely excellent material” unnoticed in the “deluge” sent to schools eg. Material on developing group talk (drew heavily from oracy work of Neil Mercer.


  • Strategy ended in 2009. £4 billion spent.
  • Framework for English (2008) that “reverted to traditional organisation around the concepts of reading, writing and speaking and listening” and included KS4. It made little impact on teachers due to withdrawal of Strategy, new curriculum, new GCSEs and abolition of KS3 tests.
  • Gibbons gives a personal account of how he sees the effect of the Strategy evident in the work of new entrants to the profession (page 96-97). There can be “little doubt” he says that the Strategy affected the structure of lessons.
  • Guided group reading failed in secondary English where the “twin concepts” of the class reader and independent reading time were entrenched.
  • Speaking and Listening remains the least prioritised area of English.
  • Sue Hackman felt the lasting achievements of the English Strategy was a “narrowing of the gap in terms of pupils’ achievement in writing”. Adopting the genre approach was to make the “invisible visible”. A limited success.
  • “However, ifsuccessive reports by Ofsted, culminating in 2015’s Key Stage 3: The Wasted Years? (Ofsted, 2015), are any true measure then it appears that the lasting impact ofthe Key Stage 3 strategy has been negligible.” By 2015 OFSTED saw KS3 English as lacking a clear direction in terms of an overall vision for English and a failure to adequately address the issues of continuity and progression from KS2 to KS4.


  • The 1995 version of the curriculum had 3 versions: “’over my dead body, what we could live with and what we wanted” (Sue Horner). Final version between what we could live with and wanted.
  • A “more humane curriculum” and ” it is fair to say that the 1999 version showed continued improvement in terms of articulating a notion of English closer to the progressive model at the heart of many teachers’ practice”.
  • ” Key Stages 3 and 4 were presented for the first time as a single programme ofstudy, and within the orders ‘language structure’ was used in preference to any explicit reference to grammar.”
  • “For many suggested a move in the right direction for English”.
  • QCA seen as “increasingly more progressive and humane”. QCA adopted a more consultative approach in working towards the revision of the National Curriculum.
  • QCA’s “more discursive approach”:
    • The Grammar Papers (1998)
    • Not Whether but How (1999)
    • New Perspectives on Spoken English in the Classroom (2003)
    • Introducing the Grammar of Talk (2004)
  • English 21 “English 21 was an invitation to join an apparently big-picture discussion about the nature of the subject in a changing world”.
  • “The result of English 21 and Playback was an apparently radically reshaped English curriculum, using what were known as the four ‘C’s-Competence, Creativity, Cultural Understanding and Critical Understanding – as a lens to frame the traditional areas of speaking and listening, reading and writing.”
  • QCA launched curriculum that was “more widely welcomed than any since the original Cox report”


  • “I suggested (Gibbons, 2007) that the effects of nearly 20 years of central reform had created not only a culture where only that which was tested was valued, but had deprofession­alised English teachers to the extent that freedom would be meaningless.”
  • “English teachers, I suggested, had so long been under the tyranny of central imposition and central testing, that these had become their raison d’etre; without them they would question their existence.”