Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Why our children need electoral reform - John Dougherty

An odd title, I know, for a post on a blog to do with children’s books; but bear with me. It’s entirely relevant to the ABBA brief. And please, forgive both the length and the polemical nature of this piece; but I’m angry, and I’m concerned, and I need to get this off my chest.

A primary school literacy co-ordinator recently told me about a project she’d done with her previous class which had been extremely successful - and, in terms of today’s primary system, quite radical: firstly, she’d gone off-timetable for the week; secondly, believe it or not, she’d used a book (yes, an entire book, not just snippets!); and, thirdly, and most daring of all, she hadn’t used any learning objectives.

For those of you unfamiliar with the idea of learning objectives: the prevailing orthodoxy in what passes for education in UK plc is that, even for quite young children, the teacher should begin her planning for every lesson by deciding exactly what the children are going to learn, and then devise a lesson whose aim is to teach it; she should at the beginning of the lesson put the learning objective (or objectives) on the board so that the children know what they are supposed to learn from this lesson; and at the end of the lesson she should have a way of checking whether or not they’ve actually learned it. Job done, box ticked.

It’s a very mechanistic approach to learning, ignoring all kinds of teensy-weensy trivial little factors such as, well, what children are actually like, how they develop, how they learn, and the difference between appearing to understand something and actually understanding it. A lot of teachers are unconvinced of the wisdom of this approach, but as they’re equally unconvinced of the wisdom of giving OFSTED an excuse to put on the hobnailed boots of punishment and stamp on their heads, they mostly hold their noses and get on with it.

This brave teacher, though, decided - just for the week - to do it differently. So: the class read a chapter, they talked about it, the discussions drove the next bit of learning, and so on for the rest of the week. And, she told me, the writing the children did for her during that project far, far surpassed anything else they produced in that year.

But, she went on, she can’t do that often. Instead, she has to spend precious time telling her class the meaning of phrases such as ‘subordinate clause’ - not because she believes that at 10 they need to know what a subordinate clause is, but because their writing has to use subordinate clauses to be marked at Level 5 in their SATS, and the only way to ensure they do this is to tell them (a) what a subordinate clause is and (b) that if they don’t use them they won’t get a Level 5.

There are not words to describe how furious, how utterly, impotently enraged I am that good teachers are forced to reduce the beauteous thing that is language to a series of components that, if assembled according to the Official Plan, will tick the correct box on some faceless, brainless imbecile’s clipboard. This is wrong. It’s stupid. It’s the same thinking that is now leading culture-free, drivellingly anti-intellectual philistines to suggest that it’s possible and even desirable to programme a mindless, soulless, heartless, garbage-in-garbage-out computer to recognise and mark good writing.

But that’s not all. The same week, a librarian told me of how she had gone off to buy new stock for the children’s library and was, on her return, asked by her boss: “But did you get what the children want?” By which, apparently, was meant: shelffuls of pink sparkly fairy books and countless copies of Horrid Henry. Not that I’ve got anything against Horrid Henry or fairy books as part of a balanced reading diet; but if I want to see shelves full of nothing else I’ll go to Waterstones or WH Smiths. I don’t need my library to look exactly like a branch of a bookstore chain; in fact, I want it to look quite different. I want to find there the books that Waterstones won’t take a chance on, the books that may not make a fiscal profit but that it will profit me to read.

And when libraries are trying to compete with bookshops to get the latest will-be-bestsellers in, regardless of merit or quality or anything but marketing budget and celebrity name on the front, but can’t get me a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses - and I don’t mean they don’t have it on the shelves, I mean my local library couldn’t find a copy anywhere in the library system - then something’s badly, dangerously, civilisation-threateningly wrong.

I suspect that it’s down to those by-our-lady tickboxes again. Libraries are measured not on the service they provide, but on how many people they provide it to. I’ve visited at least one library where they have a counter that notes how many times the automatic door opens in a day, divides it by two, and makes that the measure of success. What idiot, what absolute dummy-sucking moron thought that was a good way to measure our public library service?

Then there’s the publishing industry. It’s a business, and you can’t blame publishers for trying to make money - especially in these rather crunchy times - but it does sometimes seem that the sales and marketing people have more power than the editors to decide what to publish. As Philip Pullman once argued, though, books are not an ordinary commodity, and to treat them as such, putting all efforts into chasing the Next Big Thing (or, more often, the Same As The Last Big Thing) and the celebrity branding, will have a negative effect on the quality and range of what’s available for young readers.

All of these issues have been concerns of mine - and, probably, of yours - for quite some time; but it was only when I found myself having conversations about all of them within a short space of time that it really, forcibly struck me:

Reading is important. Books are important. Good books are important. They help to develop basic and advanced literacy skills, thinking skills, value systems, critical and logical faculties, imagination and creativity... The list is probably endless. If we want what’s best for our children, then we want them to learn to love reading. And so we need a culture which enables and encourages that love.

But if what we have is a school system which reduces reading to a set of mechanical decoding skills, then fewer of our children will learn to love reading. And if those children who somehow begin to learn that love of reading then find that both libraries and bookshops are filled with the same narrow range of books, which - if nothing is done - is more and more likely to be the literary equivalent of junk food, then how is that love of reading ever going to develop? And what will that mean for our society in forty years’ time? It doesn’t bear thinking about - but we have to think about it, and we have to do something.

So: what has all this to with electoral reform?

My argument is this: the prevailing political orthodoxy states that:
  • teachers are not trustworthy, and therefore must be controlled and monitored centrally
  • the prescriptive, targets-focused methodology which has stripped the creative heart out of our education system is necessary to provide accountability and Raise Standards
  • libraries should be run according to the whims of the market without any particular thought for knowledge or literature
  • the market is always right.

Under the current system, only two political parties have any chance of forming the next government, and both of these apparently hold unquestioningly to this orthodoxy. The barbarians are not only at the gates; they’re in the seats of power. And the only chance we have of unseating them is to reform our electoral system so that our votes actually make a difference even if we don’t live in a key marginal, renewing parliament so that it becomes once more a check on the executive rather than an expensive rubber stamp.

That’s why we need a referendum, and why we need it before the next election - so that we can reverse the decline in our culture before it’s too late. Have a look at the Vote For A Change campaign, badger your MP, do whatever you can to get us a system in which our votes have meaning; and then use that vote to fight against this untrusting market-driven philistinism, while we still have a culture worth saving.

John's website is at www.visitingauthor.com. His latest book is Jack Slater and the Whisper of Doom.

21 comments:

Nick Green said...

Wholeheartedly agree with your initial points, John - we are breaking the butterfly upon a wheel with our current system of teaching literacry.

And I pretty much agree with the second point too, about the voting system.

But I'm not sure about the join between the two; I think educational reform doesn't require electoral reform. It just requires enough separate campaigning, in my view. Teachers have had greater freedoms in the past, as have publishers, without an electoral system of proportional representation.

Which nonetheless would be a good thing.

Nick Green said...

Literacry! Jesus wept...

John Dougherty said...

Okay, Nick; but who do we vote for now to see the reforms we want? People have been campaigning about some of these issues for years without effect; the responses of both major parties to the Cambridge Primary Review was at best pathetic and at worst shameful... A generation of children have already gone through this; can we afford to let another go by?

The only people with the power to abolish SATS, depoliticise education, and liberate both librarians and teachers to do their jobs are those in government, and the only people with a chance of forming a government right now are refusing to see the need.

steeleweed said...

1) The world is going to hell in a handcart.

2) The educational system, in UK and most 'developed' countries is pushing the handcart.

3) The Establishment is steering the handcart - toward the cliff.

4) The same thing has been going on since ancient Rome - and probably much longer.

5) Civilization is doomed.

6) The species will survive, whether or not it's worthwhile.

:-(

Nicky said...

I think the pendulum has swung too much in a prescriptive direction but I believe children need to be taught to read before they can love reading and a failure to teach the mechanics of reading handicaps all children for life.
I love books, but lots of perfectly functioning adults I know don't. You can't make children love reading - perhaps the library service is tryng to tempt children into it?

Nick Green said...

I fear one couldn't depoliticise education, John... it sounds a bit like trying to make nuclear arms for peace. It's one of the biggest vote-winners there is, if only a knee-jerk sense.

How about this? A teacher's strike. But not the kind where they refuse to go to work. They just refuse, en masse, to do the work as they are told, and do it the way they want to. They boycott the prescribed methods and refuse to hold SATs, etc etc. I don't know if it could happen, but it would be the kind of strike I'd support. And if enough teachers did it, maybe someone somewhere would get the message.

Katherine Roberts said...

Ah, but no politician wants a country full of creative people with imagination who get bored with ticking boxes... far too difficult to govern!

Seriously, though, I understand your anger. I've heard the same things from friends who are/were teachers (some have left teaching because of the increased box-ticking). My mum, possibly one of the last teachers totally free to follow a creative approach, took early retirement because of this.

As for your comment about books, I don't think it's really the same thing because the problems here are driven by market forces rather than any desire to control or tick boxes. But the two could well be linked, because the product of a box-ticking classroom is obviously going to want a certain kind of book and be less interested in things like Ovid... is Ovid in one of those boxes? I'm guessing not.

Katherine Roberts said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Katherine Langrish said...

It's a terrible shame that creative, brilliant teachers aren't allowed to be creative. The tick-the-box system was designed to deliver an adequate or minimum (whatever that may be) level of education to every child: because there are and were some really terrible teachers who, without this kind of check-up, delivered almost no form of education at all. Back in the 70's, at various stages, some of these people taught me French, Geography, History and Maths.
Unfortunately,while box-ticking may prevent the worst, it is the enemy of the best.
And you know, EVERYONE knows who the great teachers are - the scary, inspiring, not-a-dull moment-in-class-but-woe-betide-you if-you-don't-pay-attention teachers. Maybe they should just be exempt from all box-ticking: they get the results anyway!

catdownunder said...

It is the same here in Australia. Children 'do not have time to read fiction' I was told. That has to be done in their free time - when they are not being dragged to endless, supervised after school activities, watching television or playing computer games. Teachers say there is 'too much for children to learn' and 'we can't waste classroom time on anything outside the curriculum'.
It is not just teachers either. A single father I know has been heavily criticised because he allows his daughter to read when she 'should be doing a sport or learning music'. You are apparently supposed to have the child constantly under supervised and controlled learning. It makes me wonder why I wasted a decade of my life getting the UN to agree to have International Literacy Year. Litercry indeed Nick!

John Dougherty said...

Thanks, everyone, for your comments so far. To address just a few of them (and I hope the following makes sense; I should be in bed by now!):

Nicky, I agree entirely that children need to be taught to read, though I believe the love of reading begins with the love of story, which should come before the mechanics.

And I don't believe understanding the grammar, as in my example, is part of the mechanics of reading - that's something that should come later.

And, yes, you can be a perfectly functioning adult without loving books, just as I'm a perfectly functioning adult who can't draw; but both are still a shame on an individual level and a huge societal handicap if typical!

Nick, education was politicized in the '80s - before that, the parties had a compact to leave it alone. There should be no reason why we can't go back to those days, and if we didn't have such a two-party system perhaps we could.

Katherine, I agree that the issues I raise are separate - which is why it didn't really occur to me until recently to link them - but I do believe they're driven by the same political orthodoxy.

Nicky said...

I agree that the prescriptive approach has gone too far but having experienced an earlier approach where the whole focus was on 'loving reading' but not actually teaching any child to read, I am sceptical about more pleasure led approaches. Getting rid of SATS for younger kids would go some way to liberate teachers to respond to the needs of their individual pupils.
I think story is alive and well; it is books that are under pressure and I'm not sure there is an easy solution to that. Other means of accessing story are easier and, for many, more rewarding.

Nick Green said...

Catdownunder -
>"A single father I know has been heavily criticised because he allows his daughter to read when she 'should be doing a sport or learning music'."

I do hope that this father told them in no uncertain terms where to stick this criticism. The nerve of some people!

Let me add an aside here, slightly relevant: four of my cousins were real sporting stars at school (unlike me, who was bookish). I believe they all suffered major injuries in the course of serving their school sports teams, some of which trouble them to this day. I, by contrast, merely have to wear glasses. And of course, I can still read.

John Dougherty said...

Nicky:
"I agree that the prescriptive approach has gone too far but having experienced an earlier approach where the whole focus was on 'loving reading' but not actually teaching any child to read, I am sceptical about more pleasure led approaches."

Nicky, I'm not sure you're actually arguing against anything I'm arguing for here. The teaching of reading is a separate subject, one I haven't addressed here - but one on which I'd be happy to comment if you'd like to blog about it!

Nicky said...

I think the lit strategy was designed to address horribly low literacy standards in primary schools. I am sorry if I've gone off on one but I don't think all formal teaching is pernicious nor that you can teach kids to love reading. Reading for me has always been an essentially subversive activity conducted beneath the desk when I ought to hve been doing something more constructive. TBH it still is - it's a mind altering drug which keeps me from being wholly present in my real life.
I think we should discourage it on that basis and watch the number of readers rise...

John Dougherty said...

No, you haven't gone off on one! And I agree that formal teaching is not by definition pernicious; but much about the methodology that has been forced upon teachers is. That isn't to do with its formality; it's to do with the philosophy that underpins it.

As to the literacy strategy: I think it was introduced, without proper analysis or consultation, to address fears of low standards in primary schools, which is not the same thing as low standards themselves. Yes, there was some terrible teaching; there was also some excellent teaching; and most of the teaching was adequate. That's the nature of any system that relies on people for its workings. There is no evidence that I'm aware of that overall standards declined during the sixties and seventies, and no objective evidence that the literacy strategy has made any difference at all to the ability of children to read - though I believe there is evidence to suggest it's had a negative effect on their desire to read.

The major problem is that the decisions are being made by people who (a) don't know enough about education or child development and (b) won't listen to the experts if what the experts are saying doesn't fit with what the floating voters in key marginals want to hear.

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