On the whole, I would rather scratch out my own eyes than ever agree with anything that emanates from the vicinity of Michael Gove. I was therefore horrified to discover that, when reading his speech from earlier this week, I actually agreed with two key issues he raised:
- Many children don’t read enough
- Many children don’t really understand the basics of grammar
Just as I was picking up the phone to pre-book an appointment at Moorfields Eye Hospital, I continued reading only to discover that, while he’d finally picked up on something relevant he had, as always, completely missed the point.
Like most people, my key issue with Mr Gove (I use the formal name out of respect, not because I am in anyway incorporating a Mr Men analogy into my very serious piece on education) is that he seems to have based the education policy for an entire nation on ‘Well, I liked school and I turned out ok, so everyone should do what I did!’ He, of course, would have articulated it much better than I just have, and probably thrown in some reference to classical mythology just to prove how well educated he is.
Mr Gove believes our education system has fallen prey to a “culture of excuses and low aspirations”. There is no doubt that there are times when this is true: working in a disadvantaged area it can be easy to fall into the trap of just being pleased when certain challenging students manage to turn up and get through a whole school day. That clearly isn’t enough. However, there are issues with certain students which are complex and require more thought than Mr Gove implies.
If I attempt to engage a disaffected student with a chaotic home life and no academic aspirations by sticking them in a private school style blazer and making them read only 19th Century classics, am I really raising their aspirations? Or am I just reinforcing the idea that privately educated people are generally ‘better’ and the only way to get on in the world is to pretend to be more like them?
At the risk of ruining my eyesight forever, let’s return to the key points where Mr Gove and I do have something in common.
*brief pause while I shudder after writing that sentence*
One of his key issues is that of children’s reading. Rather than being concerned about the number of children who don’t read at all, Mr Gove is concerned that “there are all too many children and young people only too happy to lose themselves in Stephanie Meyer”. He is concerned that children are actively turning away from classics such as George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’ in favour of teen fiction like the Twilight series. What Mr Gove seems not to understand is that it is not an either/or choice. The beauty of the advent of modern fiction, like The Twilight Series, is it engages a whole audience who may never before have considered reading for pleasure. They may not be of the same literary calibre, but if children are actively ‘losing themselves’ in a book, surely that can only be a good thing. If a child has discovered a love of reading, don’t ruin it for them by forcing them to read books they don’t like or aren’t yet ready for. Support them and let them discover it in our own time. Just because Mr Gove loved George Eliot as a teenager, doesn’t mean there’s something wrong anyone who doesn’t.
While he seems to dislike any books not written prior to the 19th Century (since when did age alone become a marker of good literature?), Mr Gove does attempt to make himself more culturally relevant by referencing popular children’s author Jacqueline Wilson to support his assertion that levels of grammar among school children are not good enough. Again, I agree. (I may have to take a shower after I finish writing this to wash off the shame!)
As a secondary school teacher, I am seriously concerned about the number of students who arrive in my class unable to properly punctuate even simple sentences. When asked what the purpose of a comma is they invariably reply ‘it’s where you take a breath’. I must therefore assume there is an uncharacteristically large problem with respiratory diseases in my classroom, as commas are thrown around in sentences like confetti at a wedding.
Part of the problem is that there was a clear hiatus in the explicit teaching of grammar, meaning we now have a whole generation of teachers who don’t really know how to teach grammar. I should know – I’m one of them! I know how to use grammar correctly, but explaining its intricacies to other people is something I have to work on constantly. I also face the challenge that, by the time students reach secondary school, many of these bad habits are so ingrained it’s practically impossible to train them out of them.
If I, as a specialist English teacher, struggle to know how best to teach grammar, I can’t imagine how primary school teachers feel. The primary school teacher is the ‘jack of all trades’ of the education field; expected to teach every subject under the sun to children ranging from those who have only recently mastered potty training to those on the cusp of full-blown puberty. Can you really expect them to be able to practically demonstrate the process of photosynthesis one minute and move on to explaining the varying uses of subordinate clauses the next with equal skill and enthusiasm?
So how does our inimitable educational leader plan to tackle the problems of reading and writing? With “a screening check at the age of 6”. Hurray! A test! Another test! Because we all know the best way to fatten a pig is to weigh it more often. Constantly, in fact. Never let the pig off the scales! Stand there, staring at it constantly, telling it to gain more weight by reading out the numbers on the scales and setting it clearly defined targets of how many pounds you want it to gain by tomorrow!
And if it doesn’t work? Well, it’s clearly the fault of all those teachers and teaching unions who don’t care. They, allegedly “have objected to our desire to ensure that children are properly literate at the end of primary school”. Yeah that’s right. We all hate kids! We don’t want them to learn. That’s why we choose to work with them day in, day out, despite being constantly criticised by the government. Because we hate them and want them to fail.
So, it seems that Mr Gove and I don’t actually agree on that much after all. Thank God for that. I thought I was about to lose all sense of who I was!
But before I throw a party in celebration of realising my true political leanings, I have to admit it makes me a bit sad. I wish I did agree with Mr Gove. I genuinely want him to succeed because, despite the massive risk to my ocular function, I really do want education to work for every child and for every child to reach secondary school fully literate.
So, on the off chance that any of you readers know Mr Gove (you never know!) and can convince him to take the opinions of someone who, sadly hasn’t been to Eton, but who has worked with primary school children struggling with literacy and young offenders who had often been excluded from school, has taught in inner London for several years, who is a godmother and aunt to primary school children and pre-schoolers, and now mother to an almost-toddler (well, he might be toddling if he wasn’t so busy sitting on his backside reading Dear Zoo for the 1000th time!) here are a few ideas for fixing the problems we both agree on:
– Reinstate funding for public libraries. You can’t encourage a love of reading in children if they don’t have access to books so they can read.
– Don’t cut funding to children’s centres and similar services. Our local children’s centre recently announced it was cutting a number of vital services because it had lost 20% of its funding. It’s ok for people like me who know about education and already read with their children, but what about parents who didn’t have a good education themselves? Where are their children going to learn good social skills and be read stories? There’s no point waiting until they’re 6 then screening them to discover they don’t even know which way the pages of a book turn. You need to intervene when they are babies and toddlers, get them reading and talking before they even walk through the school gates.
– Stop moaning about teachers’ inability to teach grammar and do something about it. Provide some training (not a boring information pack, actual training) so teachers know how to teach grammar properly and confidently. There will be plenty of people who say you shouldn’t have to provide this, and maybe you shouldn’t, but if you don’t think the teaching’s good enough, stop moaning and do something about it.
– Don’t just assess: intervene. If children are really struggling with reading and writing, they don’t need a standardised test. They need help! This takes time and resources, but it works. Look to charities like Springboard for Children and Reading Recovery. They may not have gone to Eton, and they may not even all have read Middlemarch, but they do know what they’re doing.
– http://www.springboard.org.uk/ @springboard4