There’s anger about the approach to writing represented by the fronted adverbial thing, and you should tread warily near a primary school teacher as it really isn’t a joke. I’m part of the generation who weren’t taught any English grammar at primary in the late sixties and secondary in the seventies. We were taught to spell and to write with structure, clarity and creativity, but not how to take the stuff apart and analyse it. I took German O level and was properly bamboozled by the sheer tonnage of grammar required accurately to describe a Danube steamer. (I cannot tell you how useful that’s been). In the mother tongue we were expected to write well because we read widely. It was a bit of a devil-take-the-hindmost approach and those whose lives weren’t full of books by background or inclination fended for themselves. That’s not fair education.
This month we approach the new GCSEs in English and maths. They’ve been attractively described as big and fat, meaning that a huge amount of knowledge and understanding is required and young people have to be able to manipulate their learning to perform well. Government, Ofsted and the exam boards are putting on a show of being reasonable about expectations. Everyone hopes they’re working hard to create a system in which children’s learning can be sensibly structured and assessed and, so far, tarantara, no-one’s said that everyone has to be above average.
A visitor came to see me about knowledge and we chewed the fat for a bit. We talked about the journey of the last seven years and the importance of putting knowledge and learning, rather than assessment and school performance, front and centre of the curriculum. We walked around school and I felt a bit of a fraud because everyone was doing exams and testing, but it is May. The artists and dancers were actually being examined, but all exuded a zen-like calm.
We wondered what will the new government do about the Ebacc? I formulated a view. When the curriculum was being weakened by performance incentives there had to be a way of stopping it. That turned out to be a debate about what’s important to learn and how we should assess it. It’s still a work in progress but the structural impediments have been adjusted: therefore, does the Ebacc need to be pushed all the way? Can the nation not devise a way to work together with trusted school leaders to judge if a school has a solid and sensible curriculum without a binary judgement? Ebacc good, Nobacc bad?
I understand entirely the notion of entitlement. A child should get, at any school, a curriculum that enables him to compete with the unreasonably privileged. But the Ebacc raises so many insurmountables: no teachers, no money, skewed calibration of GCSE languages which make them exceptionally daunting to slower acquirers, brexitty populism, overloading of English and maths, preservation of the arts and not enough time. I worry that the big fat specifications will be unmanageable for human students of all abilities unless we can really learn some new language about what constitutes progress.
However, young people have their own imperatives. Two year seven girls wielded a clipboard of their own devising at me, action researching into that great mystery, the pronunciation of Primark. I supported the majority view. The Guitar Night ended with some blues and an arrangement of the Game of Thrones theme beautifully played by young peoples 11-18 of all shapes and sizes. Our own politics is marginally less blood-sodden, I suppose.
Thursday’s Evening Standard headline was a marvel of punctuation: