The National Curriculum in English

By | Februari 19, 2017

In July 1991, Kenneth Clarke, Secretary of State for Education, removed from their posts the two chairmen and chief executives previously in charge of the National Curriculum Council (NCC) and the Schools Examinations and Assessment Council (SEAC). Duncan Graham at NCC and Philip Halsey at SEAC were both men with considerable experience of educational administration. They were replaced by David Pascall, an oil executive who had once worked in Mrs Thatcher’s policy unit at No. 10, and Lord Brian Griffiths, previously Mrs Thatcher’s policy adviser on education. Both had strong links with the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies, a think tank supported by people with traditional views about English fashionable in the 1930s. From this time onwards, through 1992 when, after the General Election, John Patten became Secretary of State, the advice of professional teachers has been largely ignored by Ministers, and the number of rightwingers on NCC and SEAC has increased dramatically. Extreme right-wing educationalists describe teachers as the Enemy. The English group on SEAC was chaired by Dr John Marenbon, a Cambridge don who specialises in medieval philosophy, who, with his wife, Dr Sheila Lawlor, is a prominent member of the Centre for Policy Studies.

In 1992 this group of Conservatives proceeded to impose their ideas on both assessment and the curriculum. In September 1992, John Patten announced that the English curriculum would be revised by NCC, even though almost all teachers agreed it was working well. Soon afterwards Lord Griffiths announced assessment arrangements for Key Stage 3 which prescribed three Shakespeare plays and a short anthology of poems, stories and plays. The freedom of teachers to choose their own texts for their pupils to enjoy was taken away. Professional teachers pointed out that the best way to obtain high marks in these new arrangements for assessment would be by rote learning; in June 1993 teachers boycotted Key Stage 3 tests in English.

Why were these right-wing Conservatives allowed to take over the National Curriculum? Unfortunately the original arrangements for setting up a National Curriculum as laid down by Kenneth Baker in the 1988 Education Reform Act were deeply flawed. In his autobiography, The View from No. 11 (1992), Nigel Lawson, previously Mrs Thatcher’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, says of Kenneth Baker that

“not even his greatest friends would describe him as either a profound political thinker or a man with a mastery of detail. His instinctive answer to any problem is to throw glossy PR and large quantities of money at it, and his favoured brand of politics is the instant response to the cry of the moment (p. 606)”.

In his book on the intrigues and pressures which surrounded the foundation of the National Curriculum, A Lesson for Us All (1992), Duncan Graham describes how in 1988 he was called down to London by Kenneth Baker to be offered the job of chairman and chief executive of the NCC. The meeting, he says, was ‘gloriously unspecific…he offered me a concept of what the job was even if the details were decidedly vague’ (p. 9). Graham was an energetic administrator determined to make the curriculum work, and that meant careful attention to detail. As soon as he began to take action, he discovered that Baker’s woolliness continually left him in an exposed position, unsure of his powers and responsibilities.

The main problem was that there were no clear guidelines about who should take final control over the curriculum. When I became chairman of the English Working Group, I assumed-perhaps naively-that my duty was to produce a curriculum which reflected the best of professional advice and classroom practice. Saunders Watson, who chaired the History Working Group, took a similar stance, and as a result Mrs Thatcher decided he had gone native, and let the country down. She was determined that the history curriculum should place great emphasis on the learning of historical facts; in contrast, the History Working Group rejected parrot learning, and said that names, dates and places provide only the starting points for understanding. The lack of firm rules about the power of the Working Groups and NCC created inevitable tensions.

Graham says that Baker told him shortly after his appointment that Ministers had insisted on a National Curriculum Council because they realised they would need totally independent professional advice over and beyond the kind they would get from civil servants. Teachers would also need a source of independent educational advice, and it would be better if schools were given that advice by people they saw as professionally credible. Perhaps the most important sentence in Graham’s book deals with this issue. He writes: ‘Both Baker and Rumbold (a junior minister) believed there were dangers in the national curriculum if it passed into the hands of an unscrupulous minister and that the existence of NCC with a strong professional view would be a bulwark’ (p. 113).

Baker’s failure to establish the independence of the NCC on a proper footing, to think hard about how a future unscrupulous Minister (Conservative or Labour) could be prevented from taking over the curriculum, caused me major problems when I chaired the English Working Group. When the Working Group’s first report on the primary stages was submitted to Kenneth Baker in September 1988, he commented in his proposals, printed at the front of the report, that ‘the programmes of study for writing should be strengthened to give greater emphasis to the place of grammatical structure and terminology’. He wrote this as a PR exercise in response to ‘the cry of the moment’ from right-wing Conservatives, not as a rational reply to our careful explanations that knowledge about language is best acquired in the process of writing and discussing real texts. Graham writes that my Working Group ‘had simply failed to grasp that nothing else than a firm commitment to grammar, however it was described, would be acceptable to the government’. Instead, he says, we followed the Kingman Committee’s recommendations, which, of course, reflected the views of professional teachers and linguists. Graham’s account brings out the unresolved confusion about who should control the National Curriculum. Should I have adapted our report to satisfy the prejudices of politicians in opposition to professional advice about the real needs of children? For me and my Working Group such behaviour was out of the question.

While Graham was in charge of NCC, teachers welcomed the new frameworks for learning, and standards in English began to rise. Unfortunately, since Clarke placed rightwingers in charge of NCC and SEAC, these bodies have lost credibility. A crucial problem in the 1990s is for teachers and parents to devise strategies for keeping the curriculum free of political control.

Now the curriculum is in the hands of right-wing ideologues, does this not support the views of those opponents of the National Curriculum who argued that this experiment was doomed to failure? In the 1970s and 1980s many educationalists (including Duncan Graham) pointed out that schools from similar catchment areas often varied dramatically in their academic achievements. After the 11+selection exams were abolished, schools were free to devise their own courses until pupils reached the age when the demands of GCSE imposed their prescriptions. Some excellent schools used the progressive ideas of the 1960s with imagination in carefully structured programmes of work. Others were of depressingly low quality, with children left to survive for themselves in badly organized classrooms where, for example, some teachers seemed to believe their pupils would somehow learn to read by osmosis.

The aim of the National Curriculum was to raise the standards of these poor schools to those of the best. I am still strongly in favour of a National Curriculum, but believe radical changes are necessary. As I have explained, the curriculum must not be dominated by one political party, and must reflect the views of the best professional teachers. I believe Key Stage 3 should be abolished; there is now too much bureaucracy and testing in the system, and teachers’ time is being wasted. Key Stages 1 and 2 should be mainly assessed by the teachers themselves through coursework, and carefully structured observation over a period of time. There should be no published league table for Key Stages 1 and 2. But even if these reforms are instituted, the curriculum will still create problems because the teaching of English language and literature raises crucial questions about our value systems and our concepts of national identity. This is particularly so in the teaching of grammar and in the choice of texts for study in the classroom.

In the 1930s and 1940s grammar was usually taught through mechanical exercises such as parsing and clause analysis. The clever children, of course, advanced quickly in their reading and writing skills, as they usually do whatever the quality of the teaching. They were selected at a very early age, and placed in an ‘A’ stream. Many of these children are now in their sixties and they look back with nostalgia to those golden far-off days. They forget that the less able children fared badly under this system, and received little individual attention. In those days the lower streams were usually allocated to the less experienced teachers. When I left the army in 1949 I spent four months as an untrained supply teacher in a secondary modern school at Immingham in South Humberside. Although I had no qualifications, I was asked to teach reading to a group of illiterate 13- year-olds. I was a complete failure, and did not know how to help them. In the 1930s and 1940s children were taught rules about English grammar which are now recognised as false. Children were taught not to begin sentences with ‘And’ or ‘But’, and not to end a sentence with a preposition. They were told never to split an infinitive. The teachers of those days were applying Latin rules to the living English language, and all linguists today acknowledge that this is entirely inappropriate.

Great writers such as Byron and D.H.Lawrence split their infinitives. The excellent Reader’s Digest The Right Word at the Right Time (1986) says that the rule that you must not split the infinitive is ‘irrational’. Phrases such as ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before’ and ‘begin to silently hope’ are guaranteed to set the pedant’s teeth on edge, despite the greater metrical regularity of ‘to boldly go’ and ‘to silently hope’. In a witty entry in his A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (revised by Gowers, 1965), Fowler pokes fun at those pedants whose tortuous efforts to avoid split infinitives are deaf to the normal rhythms of English sentences.

Old people get very upset when they are told that the English rules they were taught at school are wrong. The way we write and speak is part of our identity, and it is destabilising to find that modern usage has left us behind. This is why many elderly Conservatives get so emotional about language. Some of these took over National Curriculum English in 1992. David Pascall himself, when asked what he meant by grammatically correct spoken standard English, replied that children should not split the infinitive. In my article ‘English Studies and National Identity’ (Reassessing Language and Literacy, edited by Mike Hayhoe and Stephen Parker, Open University Press, 1992), I describe how this longing for traditional methods is common among Conservatives, how for them the connectives of grammar, rhyme and rhythm are seen as a form of resistance to the disorders and confusions of modern living. In an article in The Independent on 2 November 1990, Stephen Spender describes how before 1945 it was taken for granted that children of every social background (particularly from the working class) should ideally speak and write an English which conformed with the best speech and writing of the educated upper classes. This involved learning the rules of Latinate grammar, and an induction into the traditional classics of English literature.

In those days there really were no other standards, but today we hear on the BBC new accents, new voices. Today our schools include thousands of children from various ethnic communities. The idea of ‘correct’ English as Latinate grammar plus Received Pronunciation is no longer valid. The great tradition of Milton, Keats or Jane Austen, Spender says, is growing even further away from the present very fluid, Anglo-American language. Like many of the older generation he finds this change unsettling. He writes: ‘The idea of a future in which there is no single standard but a multiplicity of standards, each with its separate variety of correctness, is indeed terrifying.’ He still believes, and my English Working Group followed him in this, that all children are entitled to be helped to use written and spoken standard English; this is the language of academic discourse, of national politics, of international usage.

Many research projects have shown that the old-fashioned teaching of mechanical grammar exercises does not raise standards (see, for example, Elley, W.G., Barham, I.H., Lamb, H. and Wyllie, M., 1975, ‘The role of grammar in a secondary school English curriculum’, New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, 10, pp. 26–42; reprinted 1976 in Research in the Teaching of English, 10, pp. 5–21). Such research has persuaded many teachers to reject the old boring and inaccurate ways of teaching English. Unfortunately some of them went to the other extreme, and taught no grammar or knowledge about language. National Curriculum English gives due weight to spelling, grammar and handwriting, but instead of the old boring exercises, young children are encouraged to write their own stories, to discuss them with the teacher and their friends, and to improve them, perhaps for printing in a class or school magazine. Grammar and knowledge about language can be introduced in their discussions with the teacher to help children to improve their writing skills. Teachers are very excited about these new ways of teaching language. Instead of tedious exercises, children study language in use. English is treated as a living, not a dead, language.

Unfortunately these stimulating new methods are opposed by the old-fashioned traditionalists who now control NCC and SEAC. This is another great battleground for the 1990s. Conservatives who are nostalgic for the old disciplines and authority of Latinate grammar are also usually in favour of a curriculum whose texts are taken entirely from the English classics. Dr Marenbon has pronounced that by the age of 16, children should have read Bacon, Dryden, Pope, Milton and Dr Johnson. When at the end of 1992 SEAC published its lists of texts for Key Stage 3 a passage from Johnson’s Rasselas had been included. Few children under the age of 14 are likely to enjoy this work. Dr Marenbon and his wife, Dr Sheila Lawlor, believe texts for a National Curriculum should not include any written during the last thirty years; they say we need to wait until we are sure that these recent texts are going to achieve classic status. Teachers are made very angry by these pronouncements, because such policies will kill enjoyment of literature. The Cox Report insisted that all children should be introduced to a wide range of literature, that we should include texts in English from other cultures. In our multicultural society children should be introduced to the many successful writers in English from other countries (Chinua Achebe, Anita Desai, Toni Morrison, etc.).

In an article in The Times on 1 January 1993, Sally Feldman, editor of Treasure Islands, the children’s book series on Radio 4, said that the 1992 book lists drawn up by NCC were ‘a betrayal of children, of their literature, and of the experience of reading’. She listed the many enchanting modern writings which can persuade children to enjoy reading, and pointed out that the NCC poets included no women and hardly any texts from a multicultural background. The list, she said, ‘represents a swingeing denial of what is good and valuable in modern writing’. The canon of literature advocated by the Centre for Policy Studies would have suited the days of the British Empire. It treats English as a dead language, and ignores all those creative experiments which have changed our views of what is ‘correct’ English.

These conflicts will continue through the 1990s. I greatly admire the teachers of English I have met during the last five years, and I have seen some wonderful examples of classroom teaching. We need to encourage these teachers, to respect their expertise, and to ensure that decisions about the teaching of English are taken by these professionals, not by politicians.


Brindley, Susan. (1994). Teaching English. London and New York: Routledge.

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