This Thursday’s Thought from Word of the Day asks if Swarming in the Statusphere, a ‘guide to the top 50 new trends’, is a sign of the end of civilisation as we know it. As John Crace notes in The Guardian this morning, ‘Fancy a tweetup with some b&bs’ seems to indicate that we’ve reached a pretty low point. (If you really ‘want to see the future’, as Shine claim they have, you can read Swarming in the Statusphere online.)
Worse is to come: elsewhere in the same paper, Hugh Muir points out, under the strapline ‘Educashun, edukation, educayshun. The strange ‘practices’ of Michael Gove’: ‘”We will review the operation of the current ‘basic skills’ tests of literacy and numeracy which teachers are required to pass before they can practice,” says the official transcript of the speech made by the education secretary. And once teachers have had enough practice, who knows, he may even allow them to practise.’
The one Hugh Muir calls ‘Professor Gove’, holder of a degree in English from one of our prestigious universities and the beneficiary of a luxury education in one of Scotland’s noble colleges, must have intended this to be a lesson in irony. Surely?
Hyperactive Michael Gove is at it again. It’s the old trick of picturing the situation as worse than it is in order to be seen to be bravely pushing through radical reform – when all he was doing was describing what has been in the National Curriculum since the Tories were last in power.
Having quoted Emma Thompson’s criticism of the casual use of English by students at her old school (see below), he told the Tory Conference on 5 October, in the Guardian’s words:
English teaching will be reformed to ensure that the poetry of Pope and Shelley, the satire of Swift and the novels of Dickens and Hardy are at the heart of classroom teaching…. Our literature is the best in the world – it is every child’s birthright, and we should be proud to teach it in every school.
These authors have been in the National Curriculum since the Tories were last in power – I’ve just checked and they are still there, so even those awful Labour types didn’t ban them. Perhaps Michael Gove, described by his former English teacher in the TES as a ‘precociously talented youngster’, hasn’t been doing his homework for once? Mike Duncan, who taught him at Robert Gordon’s College, told the TES: ‘I remember we had a game that we would play. He would come up with the first line of a novel and I would have to guess the title of the novel. I would do the same and he would always guess the title correctly.’ This suggests a new game: the opening sentences of books our leader ought to read next. Here’s a sentence from yesterday’s Guardian to get him started:
While Michael Gove and the Tories are occupied solving problems that don’t exist for the benefit of lunatics who don’t know anything about schools (Gove promises to end ’no touch’ rules for teachers, 2 October), the rest of us will carry on secure in the knowledge that there is no no-touch rule and that children mistakenly saying that they know their rights can be told to shush.
Answer: Carolyn Roberts, Head of ‘an orderly and happy’ Durham Johnston School. No wonder she signed off Struth; The Queen’s English Society may wince at the vernacular, but can you blame her?
What did Emma Thompson actually say?
I went to give a talk at my old school and the girls were all doing ‘likes’ and ‘innits?’ and ‘it aint’s, which drives me insane. I told them, ‘Don’t do it because it makes you sound stupid and you’re not stupid.’ There is the necessity to have two languages – one you use with your mates and the other that you need in any official capacity. Or you’re going to sound like a knob.
Her final comment rather undermines this, don’t you think?
This post features as part of my latest column in NATE’s English Drama Media: I’m afraid I couldn’t resist the temptation to plagiarise myself in the interests of topicality.
Postscript, 7 October: In today’s Guardian, Michael White writes:
Mid-Atlantic telly don Simon Schama wrote a very obliging article about David Cameron for Saturday’s FT without revealing he was poised to join the coalition as its back-to-history-basics curriculum adviser. Confronted with the country’s ignorance of past glories, he could start with the education secretary, Michael Gove, who muddled Isaiah Berlin and Immanuel Kant….
I think it’s categorically imperative that Michael Gove gets this right, don’t you?
And is our Mr Gove right that ‘our literature is the best in the world’? For that matter, whose literature is he talking about? Consider the authors he names….
Where this blog leads, greater minds will follow. Or at least so it seems from comments by Simon Tisdall on Cameron in India in The Guardian.
Where this blog leads, greater minds will follow. Or at least so it seems from today’s comments by Simon Tisdall in The Guardian. His learning objectives (or LOs, to use the ghastly initials that stalk education these days) are:
Terror: ‘When it comes to fighting terror, a bit of the famous Cameron humility might not be out of place.’
Af-Pak border: ‘This problem was made in Britain.’ (Well, I could have told him that…)
Kashmir: once a kind of paradise in the Himalayas, Kashmir is now described as ‘the most dangerous place in the world. It’s an issue that a “plain speaking” PM should not try to dodge.’
Democracy: ‘Who d’you want to deal with, Dave? Pakistani democrats, with all their failings, or another dictator?’
People: ‘International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell said: “Pakistan is facing an education emergency…. More needs to be done. Doubling Britain’s annual £130m aid to Pakistan would be an audacious move at a time of domestic financial austerity. But it would serve the British national interest.’ Indeed, and we Mirandanetters stand ready to answer our country’s call once again! I think I’ve still got Teach Yourself Urdu somewhere….
Hot on the heels of the announcement of the abolition of the QCDA comes publicity for a trendy new GCSE English course that allows the papers to link President Obama with, according to taste, Eddie Izzard (and Jonathan Ross) or Ronnie Corbett (and Ross again). Well done, OCR; as you say, it’s about image (and the students might benefit too):
This is an invaluable opportunity to give learners more control over their self-image and thus their lives. They’ll become more conscious of which registers are more appropriate in which scenarios, making them more likely to succeed when it comes to influencing and negotiating in everyday life, their education and the world of work.
If QCDA won’t protect the country from such stuff, who will? Just in time, the Times announces that ‘an Academy of English is being formed by the Queen’s English Society, to protect the language from impurities, bastardisations and the horrors introduced by the text-speak generation.’ ‘Made up of professionals, academics and self-confessed pedants,’ they’ve decided we need an equivalent to L’Académie Française. Furthermore, ‘the academy is not shunning the modern world: it has a website‘. It includes, you’ll be pleased to know, a section on the ‘tragic failure of the British education system (and the teachers that it produces) to meet the needs of our children’. I am a little puzzled, though, that each web page bears a strangely capitalised and punctuated footer: ‘Website Design by “SCOTT”‘ and that Page One is near the bottom of the contents list. Never mind, it’s only ephemera, like text-speak….
Inevitably, the Times article headlines this ‘Pedants’ revolt’. Read it online while you can, before the paywall shuts us out – and the accompanying debate ‘Do we need an Academy of English?‘ between the chairman of the Queen’s English Society and the chairman of the Spelling Society, ‘which aims to promote remedies to improve literacy, including spelling reform’. Enjoy the comments in the online discussion – and don’t stop to wonder why the Times didn’t ask anyone in education or from a university language department about this. That’s left to today’s Guardian, where John Mullan from University College London writes engagingly about the folly of preserving English in aspic. For those who want to learn about the realities of language teaching, there’s a research project on teaching English Grammar, for example, also from UCL – English teachers can find out more about it at the forthcoming NATE Conference.
Go-go Gove springs into action: set up a school, never mind the curriculum!
It was a good job I took a screenshot of the Department for Education site a couple of days ago: Go-go Gove has now sprung into action and got YouTubed for the home page. He’s also found time to abolish another quango: the second this week (I think he must enjoy it). It looks as though he’s offering the charming children in front of him the chance to set up their very own academy. I’m sure they’re all very interested: there must be nothing they’d like better than to run a school. After all, they’ve been there for at least a couple of years so they must have got the hang of it by now (and they’d only cause trouble on the streets otherwise).
The energetic Mr Gove (doesn’t he seem bouncy, Tiggerish even?) was so pleased by his school visit that he dashed off a letter to QCDA to tell them to pack their bags – again. Poor things, QCDA have only just got used the D in their name and been sent to Coventry, now they’re being sent from Coventry to oblivion. Now that anyone, even children, can run their own schools, who needs boring things like a curriculum or qualifications? As the Guardian points out closure of the QCDA and of Becta, also announced this week, will mean 730 job losses in Coventry. Being sent to Coventry never did sound much like fun….
Not much happening on the new Department for Education website; they must all be too busy setting up free schools, abolishing quangos and the like. Their home page (which still, nearly two weeks into the new government, has the temporary feel that I commented on earlier) prompted my next article for NATE’s English Drama Media magazine. Not published yet – and members only: another reason to join NATE! There is a Twitter feed, to show they’re modern, though (bearing in mind the Prime Minister’s comments on ‘too many twits’, there aren’t many tweets so far and those are anodyne).
The photograph on this page becomes increasingly unsettling the more I look at it. Children are reading books – to resort to the demotic: what’s not to like? Look closer, though, and you see Tory streaming policy in action: right wing girl reads one book, commandeers another (it’s the Matthew Effect). Move left and the girls begin to close their books (closed minds). Left-wing boy can’t read, just suck his thumb – must be destined to be a hewer of wood or drawer of water – no doubt there’s some vocational training that an outsourcing company can devise to keep him busy.
One quango that they have abolished is Becta, the education technology agency. Whilst many classroom teachers might not know much about it, some of us will regret its passing. A keen young teacher wrote to NATE: ‘I’m disgusted by this frankly. If there’s one thing a country of this size and waning political influence needs, it’s surely the wider dimension of learning possibilities that ICT offers the common classroom teacher and pupil. What use is the structural investment without sharing the good practice?’ Another commentator with many years experience as a key player in the application of ICT to English added: ‘The worry is that this actually reveals a less-than-enthusiastic endorsement of ICT in schools in general.’ Let us hope not. As the Guardian leader commented: ‘Even if the staff now facing the chop at the Becta agency, which promotes technology in schools, are not deployed as effectively as they might be, they are more useful than they will be if they end up in the dole queue.’
It’s goodbye to the Department for Curtains and Soft Furnishings – or: Education (and spelling) rules
It may be a rainbow coalition but it’s curtains for the DCSF and with it the jolly rainbow logos. Yes, the the Department for Children, Schools and Families, fondly known as ‘the Department for Curtains and Soft Furnishings’ by those (like me) who struggled to remember the correct order of the letters, is no more.
Those of us with long memories (well, we oldies with fading memories) will recall various abbreviations for our masters in Whitehall. This might be a good time for Keith Davidson to revisit the astute article he wrote for NATE’s English Drama Media magazine back in October 2008 on the ugliness of the DCFS acronym. As he said:
There are linguistic reasons for any confusion, phonetic and pragmatic…. But there is also something wrong with the sequence of items in the full title. It’s a problem of collocation, the linguistic term for the company lexical items habitually keep, predictive in both coding and de-coding…. The new Department is styled as a market place for products not processes, the title naming the delivery outlets and the customers.
Meanwhile, you can still enjoy for a while the disjointed appearance of the new/old website and realise that all those sweet children on the old site are now hurriedly packing up all the bits of their rainbows and putting them away for the long hard winter ahead. Worse, this could well be, as in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, a winter without Christmas. Do also enjoy the appearance of a Twitter feed on the new DfE front page. When I began writing this it had a message to ‘boomnoise’ – a hip name at odds with the decidedly uncool message they’ve sent him: ‘We’re reviewing all web content now. Meanwhile all statutory guidance and legislation still reflects current legal position.’ Man, get with the Web 2.0 thing, even if David Cameron did say some very uncomplimentary (and rude) things about Twitter during the election. This no doubt explains why the unofficial David Cameron Twitter site was taken down in January ‘at the reasonable & very polite request of Tory HQ’. Of course it was very polite – but just imagine if there had been any argument….
Is it also ominous that the current home page refers to ‘Children’s workforce’ and ‘Schools workforce’? Does this mean the new guys can’t actually bring themselves to utter words such as ‘social workers’ or ‘teachers’? Or that they really are just workers now and not professionals? And I see that the ‘Schools workforce’ link goes to Teachernet not to anything on the DfE site. So: ‘Here are a few ideas and lesson plans other teachers have come up with, and some links and things. Sort yourselves out, we’ll be back in a bit with the new order and new orders.’ We can imagine they might be on these lines:
Ties to be worn at all times 1 [Postscript, 18 May: Ros Asquith’s cartoon shows one reason why: ‘We introduce the old school tie to give them a head start in politics.’]
Spelling: i does come before e. 2
Sums: ‘If a banker’s bonus is £5 million and the new boss of M&S gets £15 million, how fair is that?’ (Answer on back page: it’s the market, stupid.)
Drill: 8 am sharp in the playground for half an hour with the Sergeant-Major; any latecomers to be subject to Field Punishment No. 1 for 30 minutes, rain or shine (that’ll soon sort out the scrimshankers and oiks). 3
Music: Eton Boating Song [Daily Telegraph, 17 May: ‘Eton is ready to push the boaters out for David Cameron.’ Yes, the chaps get a party because a chap’s in the right party!]
Teachers Schools workforce to be sorted by degrees: all those with less than a 2:ii marched off by Sergeant-Major to be shot dismissed. Yes, novelist and former Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo – that means you.
More sums: lovely Carol Vorderman to make the jolly lower fourth as calculating as she is!
It doesn’t add up: take 6 away from 7 to find that lovely Carol Vorderman has a third-class degree too, so where does that leave one?
(No, I give up, I can’t take any more.)
1 Michael Gove, this week appointed Secretary of State for Education, says it’s good for discipline. But does this rule apply to boys and girls – and staff? 2 Yes, Michael says this too. In 2009, the Telegraph reported that the National Primary Strategy’s Support for Spelling said ‘that the rule memorised by generations of children is no longer worth teaching’. Michael Gove, then Shadow education secretary, declared at the time:
Having systematically dumbed our schools down for a decade, it is no surprise the Government is actively telling teachers not to bother with proper spelling. I would reverse this nonsense at a stroke.
Well, now’s your chance, Michael!
3 You’ve guessed: Michael thinks this will be fun too!
Today is National Poetry Day. To celebrate, The Guardian has an interactive quiz taken from I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud: And Other Poems You Half-Remember from School. They also have an attractive set of pictures to illustrate the Top ten nursery rhymes. ‘Booktrust asked 2,500 poeple [sic] to name their favourite nursery rhyme. All together now … here are the top 10.’ Less cheerfully, The Telegraph gloomily forecast Traditional nursery rhymes could be heading for extinction. Rhymes which have been passed down from parent to child for generations are being shunned for more fashionable modern alternatives, ‘experts have warned’. However, they cite one expert, Professor Roger Beard of the Institute of Education (I hope he has a really long beard, too) as slightly contradicting their headline: ‘It is not dying out, but it is a recurring concern that parents of young children are not being encouraged to use nursery rhymes as often as they might do.’
So Booktrust will distribute one million books of the nation’s top eight rhymes in celebration of Bookstart, to help today’s parents rediscover their love for the rhymes. I wonder why they announce the ‘top ten’ but only print eight? Are they inadvertently helping to kill off the unfortunate ninth and tenth: ‘Send for chooper to chop off his head’? Good gracious, they even list ‘Jack And Jill’ as the last of the ‘least popular’ rhymes!
That, roughly, was what James Patterson said on last night’s edition of The Verb, Ian McMillan’s always entertaining discourse on matters literary on BBC Radio 3. Fortunately I had timed the washing up to catch Patterson’s thoughts on writing, though this also meant I couldn’t capture his exact words because my hands were in the sink. Still, if phenomenally successful ‘commercial writer’ (as he modestly described himself) finds sentence-level work harder than creating block-buster plots, where does that leave all the carefully-structured word, sentence and text level work in the literacy strategies?
Just where they were, I suppose.
(And, yes, I could listen again online to The Verb to discover Patterson’s exact words – but hey, sentences are hard and it’s easier to tell you to that yourselves. You’ll enjoy it.)
Children’s secretary Ed Balls on the dangers of the humble bauble – and other lessons from 2008
‘With a little more care and forward planning, most accidents and the resulting trips to A&E could be avoided,’ according to today’s Guardian. Sheila Merrill, Rospa’s home safety manager for England, was speaking at the launch of a Christmas safety leaflet from the Department for Children, Schools and Families. If only she had warned Ed Balls at the beginning of the year of the avoidable accident caused by the inflammatory combination of SATs, an American contractor already notorious in its own country, an Australian Chief Executive and a sleeping quango! Then the great SATs crash might have been avoided. The DCSF reminds us that ‘the pieces can be very sharp,’ as Ken Boston and David Gee will doubtless ruefully agree. Best put away all those nasty tests next year, then?