Saturday, 16 November 2013

We warned you this would happen - John Dougherty

I make no apologies for being angry.

If you haven’t already read or watched the excellent second annual lecture to the Reading Agency, delivered last month by the equally excellent Neil Gaiman, please do. You’ll find much to think about and much to agree with, and perhaps you’ll learn something new, too.

I learned something new. I learned this:

According to a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, England is the "only country where the oldest age group has higher proficiency in both literacy and numeracy than the youngest group, after other factors, such as gender, socio-economic backgrounds and type of occupations are taken into account".

The youngest age-group in question is 16-24, and I’m fairly sure I know why they’ve done so badly. You see, it was 16 years ago - when the youngest in that group were babies, and the eldest were only 8 - that the government began to micro-manage our children’s literacy learning.

Oh, there’d been political interference before then, and increasingly so; but it was with David Blunkett’s appointment as Education Secretary that Her Majesty’s Government became so arrogant as to think that some bloke in Whitehall whose sole experience of education was having gone to school was better placed to decide exactly how children should be taught than were trained, qualified, experienced teachers who actually had those children in front of them.

Blunkett introduced something called the Literacy Hour. Teachers protested: it would inhibit creativity; it would bore children; it would dampen enthusiasm for reading. Tough, said Blunkett, you’re doing it. It’ll raise standards.

Well, Mr Blunkett, it would appear you were wrong about that.

I was a supply teacher in those days, and I remember groans from the children when I announced it was time for Literacy Hour. I remember seeing the light in children’s eyes go out as I cut them short, wanting to hear what they had to say but knowing that I had no choice but to keep to the government-imposed clock. I remember coming home to my wife and saying, “When we have children, I don’t want anybody doing to them what I had to do to those children today.”

But however much teachers complained, the response from government was always, “We know best.”

They didn’t. They really didn’t.

And they still don’t. You see, this is not a party-political complaint. Things are no better now that New Labour is but an old memory. Now we have the coalition. We have Michael Gove ordering a one-size-fits-all phonics regime. We have the top-down imposition of a phonics test that is not fit for purpose. We have teachers pressured into the sort of behaviour recently observed by Marilyn Brocklehurst of Norfolk Children’s Book Centre:

We have so much evidence to tell us that if our children are going to achieve in literacy - and in school, and in life - they need to learn to read for pleasure. To read for fun. And we have a growing body of evidence to tell us that for this to happen, politicians must not be allowed to micro-manage any aspect of their learning.

But what can we do? Nothing. The Secretary of State for Education has assumed the powers of a dictator - literally; there’s no way of holding him, and it usually is a him, to account. Experts who challenge him are dismissed as, well, whatever is the political insult du jour - at the moment, it’s Marxist - whilst their views are misrepresented way past the point of parody.

I began this piece with the wild-haired Neil Gaiman. By the end, I’ve come to the wild-haired Russell Brand (language warning).

Maybe he’s right. Maybe the whole system is no longer fit for purpose, if it ever was.


John's next book:  

 Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Badness of Badgers, illustrated by David Tazzyman & published by OUP in January 2014

Have your name shouted by a badger and get a signed book by bidding online in the Authors for Philippines charity auction. 
Well over 200 other items, including many from Awfully Big Blog Adventure contributors.


Sue Bursztynski said...

I'm not surprised. In Australia, where I live, our various conservative governments have the same attitude, that everyone knows more about teaching than those incompetents who actually do it. There's ths thing called Teach For Astralia(based on a US program)where they employ kids fresh out of uni who have high scores but no teacher training except a ex-week crash course, to show real teachers how it's done. the idea is that they will study their teaching part time and stay on in teaching(few do) And our government admire your government and the Americans, who have a similar attitude, and want to imitate them. My principal says he has to do his annual review with a woman whom he had to take to our school to show her what a school looks like.
Our new government has decided that the history curriculum includes too few conservative prime ministers and too much of this socialist stuff about the treatment of our indigenous peoples.
Wat is the Literacy Hour? We have a literacy program at my school which the school decided to do and it works well. The kids are streamed, the lower literacy students are in small groups so they can focus on what they need to learn, and reading is a part of it. It's working! And the kids generally like it.

catdownunder said...

The Senior Cat (aka my father) was the head of primary school for many years. His passion was the teaching of reading. He spent time in the UK and Europe researching the teaching of reading.
He came home and told the Education Department he worked for that there were many ways to teach a child to read . Some children need very little teaching or encouragement. Other children need a great deal of one or both.
We actually had a Reading Centre here. He helped to set it up. It had some of the best resources in the world all in one place. Then a government (similar to New Labour) listened to a new set of voices and, because it would also "save" money they closed the Reading Centre. Now they are closing school libraries. Some schools no longer have libraries. Reading standards have dropped. I wonder why?

Stroppy Author said...

If it is so clear (as it seems to be) that the government's approach is wrong and was wrong from the start, why do the schools implement it? If ALL schools refused to do it, what's the government going to do? Fire ALL teachers? Close ALL schools? They are unionised - it should be easy to get action if all teacher really think this is wrong. Isn't it worth the showdown to save a generation? What happened to direct action? Why have we all become such obedient sheep? If it's tyranny, rise up against it. "What can we do? Nothing." is the wrong approach. Things change when we make them change.

I know, lots of people will say that's not the answer (but they don't have another answer) and it will harm children (how can it harm them more?) and destroy trust in schools (what trust?). A few years ago, I went to the parents' introduction lecture at my daughters' (secondary) school and when the head said 'we want you to help your children to conform' I realised education is rotten to the core. There are many, many good people in education. But they will need to fight harder to do the good they are capable of.

Penny Dolan said...

Interesting reading this post, John, after seeing 1984 at West Yorkshire Playhouse last night. A constant refrain about editing and manipulating language as well as altering history. Last year a very able SIX-year old told me, with a weary sigh, that he hates literacy. How many years of schooling does he still face? Far too early to feel teen dejection, imo.

Elen C said...

I spoke recently at a teacher training day. One thing I realised, from the questions from the floor, was that lots of teachers considered books to be classroom resources. It surprised them that, when I write, I give absolutely no consideration to how my books might be used to improve literacy. I wanted to shout 'that's not what books are for'!
It was great to be invited to talk to trainee teachers, maybe we need more of that sort of thing?

Sue Bursztynski said...

Cat, they're closing school libraries in your country and mine because conservative governments thought it might be a good idea to hand over the purse strings and the ower of "hire and fire" to state school principals, who ended up by having only the power to decide where to make cuts and the library is the easiest place to start. I 'm a teacher-librarian, but when I retire, I will not be replaced. If my school is very lucky, they might put in a library technician, but it's more likely they will simply turn the place into a cross between a school hall and a book room. I have never had a high budget anyway, but my current budget is less than I had in the 1980s. Teacher librarians are no longer being trained except at about four universities across the nation. The perception is that all you do all day is stamp books and why pay a specialist teacher to do that? It's not that there is any justification for this perception, but that principals don't want to know; if they did, they might have to find somewhere else to make cuts.

Susan Price said...

Here's a post about a method of teaching reading which originated in Britain - but was abandoned when the Thatcher government came to power.

It's since been developed, with great success, in Australia, under Dr David Rose, and in Canada, South Africa, and most of Scandinavia.

But Gove wouldn't welcome it...

And here's a clip of Dr. Rose talking on Danish TV. (He talks in English)

C.J.Busby said...

Great post, John, and I totally agree with it all. I love the Russell Brand interview - he just manages to express all the frustration so many of us feel in such a sharp and eloquent way. I have been pushing this YouTube video on everyone I know! HOw it is that such a bunch of public school prats with almost no mandate can systematically tear up the social contract without anyone doing more than murmur a kind of 'steady on old chaps' just beats me... (Or rather, it doesn't, it just shows quite categorically that we are not a democracy and haven't been for a long time.)

lily said...

Well said, thank you, John. Of course you shouldn't even think of apologising for being angry - if all of us were not just angry but acted, as Anne says, then maybe we could put a stop to not just the destruction of literacy but the privatization of education, loss of the entire arts curriculum, growth and reinforcement of inequality... And we all have a responsibility to act, not just the teachers so many of whom are desperately busy just trying to do SOMETHING positive for the children in their care.

John Dougherty said...

Thanks for you comments, everyone.

Stroppy, you want to know why teachers don't revolt? In my view, it's because the profession is suffering from a form of Stockholm Syndrome. Having been bashed by the media for a generation, and brutalised by Ofsted for the same length of time, it's become desperate to please its captors.

Sue, I don't seem able to open the link to your blog on my wife's iPad, but I'll have a look at it when I get home tomorrow. I'll pop back here and comment again in a day or two, but now I'm off for an anniversary dinner with my lovely wife.

obat sakit jantung said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.