Notes from English and Its Teachers by Simon Gibbons (2017)
In Chapter 6, Simon Gibbons brings the book up to date (to 2017 which – after Covid 19 and the lockdowns – seems an age ago). He presets a largely bleak and somewhat dispiriting picture of current English teaching in schools which Gibbons feels has suffered under 20+ years of direct government intervention. He points out some small attempts at presenting alternative approaches to teaching English – Looking for the Heart of English, John Richmond’s proposals and a (new) National Writing Project – but the his summation of the state of English is quite alarming.
- 2010 general election saw Tory/Liberal Democrat government. Secretary of State for Education was Michael Gove who “had deeply and steadfastly held views on the nature of the subject and what should be taught in schools. He expressed these views in ways that left no room for debate, and which very quickly ensured he was at odds with large parts of the English teaching community”.
- “With words like ‘birthright’and ‘proud’, Gove suggested English teachers were denying children their entitlement and there was more than the suggestion that English as a subject had an explicit job to do in establishing a culture of Britishness, however that most elusive of terms might have been defined.”
- “Gove’s words suggested an explicit ideological reshaping of the subject.”
- Gibbon’s argues that Gives pronouncements were not evidence-informed.
- Gove launched curriculum review in 2010. Panel consisted of Tim Oates, Mary James, Andrew Pollard and Dylan William.
- Gove’s style “deliberately antagonistic”.
- Undoubtedly sympathy from some English teachers for aspects of Gove’s reforms (Leavisite tradition would have welcomed focus on Literature).Controlled assessments also meant that students’ experiences of GCSE was dominated by assessment rather than learning (“it certainly narrowed many students’ experiences of English”).
EXPERT PANEL REPORT
- “The criticism of the levelling culture – with children more concerned to know what level they were at rather than what they could do and needed to do to improve — was a refreshing public acknowledgement of what the profession knew to be the consequence of the assessment and accountability framework.”
- The report placed emphasis on the development of speaking and listening skills and insisted that all teachers should receive professional development on how to promote oracy in their subject.
THE NEW, NEW NATIONAL CURRICULUM
- There was a “disparity” between the report and the new curriculum (leading Mary James and Andrew Pollard to resign).
- “It emerged that the English draft orders had been written by a single consultant contracted by the Department for Education: Janet Brennan, a former member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate and expert in the primary sector, particularly the teaching of phonics.”
- The real author may have been Ruth Miskin, a commercial writer who worked for a company that sold phonics reading schemes to schools.
- “Speaking and listening merely got a mention, and though oracy was instated to a certain extent in final drafts, beyond a general statement of importance the focus was on performance and presentation and debate, not on developing language – nor on the links between oracy and learning which had figured so clearly in the Expert Panel report.”
- In KS1 the teaching of synthetic phonics was “central message” and in KS2 “a heavy emphasis on the teaching of grammar”.
- “Where primary orders had page upon page of explicit content, the secondary orders, with the exception of statutory reading, set down few requirements. As one might have predicted, the reading specified was heavily weighted to the English literary canon, with Shakespeare, nineteenth century prose and so-called representative Romantic poetry all included. Scant attention was paid to speaking and listening, and whole areas of study — the media and moving image, multicultural texts, drama, etc. — were either completely ignored or mentioned only in passing. Creativity — one of the four Cs of the previous curriculum, and something central to the work of so many English teachers — was essentially written out; the one mention of the word came in the primary orders when, in referring to the long list of grammatical terms to be taught to pupils, the document stated, with no hint of irony, ‘This is not intended to constrain or restrict teachers’ creativity, but simply to provide the structure on which they can construct exciting lessons’ (Department for Education, 2013a, p. 5). Not a single mention of children’s creativity across the whole 5-16 curriculum in English, and no mention of the word at all across Key Stages 3 and 4. The times had changed.”
- “There were some interesting developments, too, for example in the requirement for author study in Key Stage 3, where students would be expected to study two writers per year, looking across their oeuvre rather than at individual works. This, allied with the instruction to study complete texts, certainly suggested a curriculum that was intended to encourage teachers to work with their classes on a broader and deeper range of texts, rather than studying one class novel a year as may have become the orthodox approach.”
- Gibbons points out this reflects the “direction of travel” in the US: the influence of E.D. Hirsch and Common Core. The rhetoric was that English departments would build their own curriculum with content paying attention to the particular communities in which the schools were sited.
- “in a sense the term National Curriculum was effectively losing whatever meaning it may once have had”.
- Gibbons argues that 20 years of direct government interventions in English had “deprofessionalised” teachers combined with high-stakes assessment and heavy accountability. This undoubtedly influenced English.
- National Curriculum assessment levels done away with (along with APP). These had created an “unhelpful levelling culture”. Reality was that removing levels wouldn’t change the culture. Departments acted pragmatically: some continued to use levels/APP, some used the new 9-1 grading system, some departments created their own systems (based on growth mindsets).
- There was an “absence of the really important questions about what is valued in English, and how that is best assessed – the sorts offundamental questions about assessment that LATE had been raising 60 years before but which were no longer really part of any detectable discourse. The conversations were about what kind of grading system would be most effective in demonstrating progress and generating data”.
- 2015 DfE final report into assessment without levels was “informed and reasonable” warning of dangers of bought-in systems, made it clear OFSTED had no favoured form and that formative assessment should be at the heart of school practice.
REFORMS TO ENGLISH EXAMINATIONS
- Initial plans to reform exams – unpopular with the profession – were not enacted. GCSEs retained but replaced with numbers rather than grades.
- Initial progress measures revamped to include Literature after initial outrage. Best score of Language or Literature would count double in league tables. “This move seemed to assure that the long-established tradition of the vast majority of pupils following an integrated language and literature course at Key Stage 4 would remain in place.”
- Texts like To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men were no longer teachable (or not assessable). A standalone speaking and listening assessment introduced and all coursework and controlled conditions assessments were removed. An emphasis on unseen texts appearing in terminal exams was established. AS and A2 assessments were decoupled.
- Two reports: English at the Crossroads (2009) and Moving English Forward (2012). Authored by Phillip Jarrett, chief inspector of English. Worrying trends particularly in early years of secondary schooling. Confusion around KS3 caused by removed of KS3 tests “reinforcing the notion that a culture had been created in which meaning and worth is only really bestowed on that which is assessed and measured”.
- Moving English Forward criticised schools that had no rationale for KS3 other than referring to GCSE exams at some point in the future.
- Gibbons suggests that if “blatantly traditionalist” reforms had been introduced 20 years earlier then there would have been mass rejection. Years of standards-based reform and accountability made collective action unthinkable.
SWIMMING AGAINST THE TIDE: THREE PROJECTS
1 – Looking for the Heart of English
- Sue Horner, head of the English team at QCDA attempted to activate a debate about what English should really look like. Echoed the English 21 initiative. Began as a personal project. It “was not sustainable as a venture”.
- “With the severe pressure exerted by the accountability framework, performance management and the demands of the school inspection framework it is surprising that any English teachers have the time or energy to devote to projects that may seem ultimately to have little chance of impact.”
2 – John Richmond’s alternative vision for English
- John Richmond was central to the Vauxhall Manor Talk Project and co-author of Becoming Our Own Experts. Worked for ILEA and was a project officer on the National Writing Project, English advisor and key regional lead in the LINC project. Joined forces with Mike Raleigh and Peter Dougill. All viewed the new curriculum as a backward step.
- Owen Education collaborated with the UK Literacy Association to publish 10 booklets on various areas of the curriculum and offering an alternative model. Booklets were well received at NATE and NAAE conferences.
3 – A new National Writing Project
- The Case for a National Writing Project (2008) by Richard Andrews, funded by the CfBT. ” The Case for a National Writing Project suggested designing a project that would see teachers work in collaboration with each other and with colleagues from higher education institutions, which would involve an intensive ten-day summer institute and which would contribute to continuing professional development and allow those involved to obtain academic qualifications up to masters level.” Was not funded.
- Simon Wrigley (LEA advisor and former chair of NATE) and Jeni Smith (UEA) set up their own National Writing Project in 2009. It set up the “ambitious” task of developing teachers’ writers groups. Wrigley while “focused on writing, had at its heart the notion of teachers as creative individuals with agency”. Wrigley believed that systems of assessment and curriculum were progressively “inhibiting teachers’ creative freedom”. The project did not want the project to become some form of CPD and recommend a model for teaching writing rather it would involve teachers becoming creative, becoming producers of ideas.
- “Modelled on the Bay Area Project in the States, Wrigley and Smith’s project’s five key principles are stated on their website as ‘teachers as agents of reform; professional development through collaboration; sustained partnership in research, analysis and experience; free and structured approaches in teaching writing; leading teachers collecting and disseminating evidence of effective practice’”.
- “The argument of the project is that, by developing themselves as writers, and by developing a clearer understanding of the challenges of writing and what it means to be an effective writer, there will be a direct impact on the work of those involved as teachers of writing in the classroom. Teachers involved in the project do so not for any extrinsic reward – they are giving up their own time but do so not only to develop but to regain a sense of agency in an era of deprofessionalisation. It is this that makes the project so striking, and the fact that it is not really funded, and that no teachers involved are rewarded in any material sense, makes it all the more laudable that by 2016 the National Writing Project had managed to establish 24 writing groups from North Wales to Nottingham and from Cardiff to Camden. Some of these groups have more explicit focus on the pedagogy of writing; others are much more concerned with enabling teachers to engage in their own writing in the context ofsupportive peers. There is not a one-size-fits-all model but the groups share some central premises; for Wrigley these are that the writing process needs to be opened up, rather than made formulaic and commercial, and that – essentially – learning should come through creativity.”
- Introducing Teachers’ Writing Groups: Exploring the Theory and Practice (2015).
- Gibbons: ” it is perhaps over optimistic to imagine that the national writing project will ever be truly that”. It does offer an alternative, progressive approach to writing pedagogy (child-centred but also with writer as teacher).
A FINAL WORD ON THE GRAMMAR QUESTION
- Another project, The Production of School English, led by Professor Gunther Kress (London IoE) between 2000-2003. Used “multimodal” research methods to see what the reality of English was in challenging urban schools.
- English in Urban Classrooms (2003)
- Grammar for Writing? (2003?) – a project coordinated by Debra Myhill from University of Exeter.
- “Grammar for Writing was a project that addressed the perennial question for English teachers – does the explicit teaching of grammar and its associated terminology have a positive impact on the quality of pupils’ writing. The common-sense view, and one that supported those who argued for greater emphasis on grammar in the curriculum, was that it did, but evidence… had stubbornly refused to support such assertions.”
- “The research did indicate that explicit teaching of grammar, within the context of meaningful work, did statistically speaking have a positive impact on pupils’ writing, but it’s fair to say that the findings were far from unequivocal; they certainly didn’t strongly support a case for those who wished to argue for explicit grammar teaching across the board. Teachers’ own knowledge was key, and where there were positive impacts these tended to be with those who were already more able writers, with the potential for negative impact on those who may have been struggling already.”
- Myhill thought that less able writers were confused by too much terminology.
- Quotes Myhill: “The connection between knowing grammar and knowing and identifying terms and becoming a better writer … that’s what I think is the real problem. There’s no connection between the two at all. And never has been. Being able to name a noun doesn’t make you a better writer.”
- “In reality it is difficult not to believe that a great deal of what goes on in English classrooms has been changed quite radically over the course of the years since the introduction of the first National Curriculum.”
- Gibbons expresses his view of current English teaching (“an indictment of what English has become”):
- “Learning objectives or learning outcomes – in one way or another – frame the lesson. These may be differentiated, and they may be closely or more loosely linked explicidy to one form of national or local assessment criteria or another.”
- “Speaking and listening, although undoubtedly still happening, is at the margins. It is seldom, unless part of a single standalone assessment for GCSE, the focus ofthe lesson -talk is rather used as a vehicle to transport pupils to the written work that is to be produced. Talk is a tool for the production of other types of learning, rather than viewed as learning in and ofitself.”
- “Drama may still take place, but again this is rarely seen as an end in itself, rather as a precursor to writing or demonstration of comprehension.”
- “When writing occurs in the classroom, this is heavily prescribed by the teacher in terms ofform and content, little time if any is given to free, creative writing or for pupils to choose their own topic. Though there may be attempts made to talk about audience, these are rarely real audiences and the focus is predominantly on purpose, and even more than that on the form that will enact that purpose. A model of writing instruction that is genre based prevails, with some ideas from a grammar for writing approach scaffolding pupils’ efforts to write in a given form by a focus on particular types of word, phrase or rhetorical construction that a given form is seen to employ. Assessment criteria variously describe the types of forms and structures that typify achievement at incremental levels.”
- “In the sphere of reading, there may be some time given to independent reading and individual choice, and pupils may occasionally be encouraged to offer a genuine personal response to a poem or story, but predominantly the text choice is the teacher’s, governed ultimately by what are seen to be the demands of a GCSE examination, and responses to reading are highly controlled. Where there is personal response invited, this is ultimately sacrificed in the pursuit of a framed response governed by a point, evidence, explanation (PEE) model of one form or another that constricts pupils and insists – even implicidy – that they are searching for the right answer and that there is not only a right answer, there is, too. a correct way to express this.”
- “A successful lesson ends with a plenary in which pupils are invited to confirm they have indeed met the preformed objectives; that they may have learned other things – arguably more interesting or valuable – does not form part of the discourse. Pupils who haven’t met the objective may be asked to say what they found difficult, or what they didn’t get, and this may inform future work – but that work will be a return to ensure they do get it. There’s not an invitation to explore what other things pupils might have wanted to discuss about a topic or text, or what else they might like to explore. The lesson is part of a sequence, and the sequence needs to be followed to ensure things are covered.“
- Gibbons feels that there are significant numbers of teachers who still have “within their professional compass” a progressive, growth-inspired, child-centred model.
- Gibbons ends: “The story of the age of intervention is one that has seen wave after wave of central intervention into curriculum, assessment and pedagogy in English. The policymakers have become smarter, or mote ruthless, or both, in their methods – reducing to a minimum the profession’s involvement in devising policy whilst making claims to consult, exploiting evidence to support dubious claims for the effectiveness of interventions, and publicly casting those that resist reform as unprofessional, self interested, even immoral. The stakes have been raised and the deregulation of the school system has made teachers more vulnerable and thus less able to resist, even when offered supposed freedoms. Yet there are still English departments and teachers who have failed to fall into line and who remain stubbornly resolute in the face of the politicians. They suggest that English has a future, and one that can potentially learn from, and build upon, the best ofthe past.”