How can the bird that is born for joy Sit in a cage and sing?

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“How can the bird that is born for joy/Sit in a cage and sing?”

These words from William Blake’s poem The Schoolboy were spoken by today’s guest on Desert Island Discs, David Almond.

Almond, ex-teacher, award-winning author and Guest Artistic Director for the Telegraph Bath Festival of Children’s Literature 2013 , said learning can be stifled by an over-prescriptive curriculum and an emphasis on testing.

It’s not the first time Almond has railed against such practices. When he accepted the Carnegie Award in 1999 for his book Skellig, he made a speech calling for ten per cent of the school year to be freed from national curriculum restraints. He accused the then Labour government of being obsessed “with tests, grades and levels of homework which are killing joy and creativity in childhood… The exhaustive chase after what we are told are higher standards has become a national obsession, an established religion.”  Almond was immediately attacked by the then Education Secretary, David Blunkett, and PM Tony Blair who both misrepresented what Almond said.

Almond predicted that this “madness” would be laughed about in 50 years time.

But 14 years on this obsession shows no signs of abating. It’s got worse. We are now at a critical time in English education, says ex-HMI Colin Richards. Unless the proposed primary National Curriculum is opposed, then schools will find themselves having to ditch the “liberal, humane values of primary education” in favour of a “soulless bottom line of the politician”.

What kind of kill-joy, ignorant of how children develop, could produce a 221 page document laying down in minute, crushing detail what children should learn and when? When most European children don’t start formal education until age 7, English Year 1 pupils will be expected, among other things (much, much more other things), to “use the grammatical terminology in Appendix 2 in discussing their writing”*.

This pedantic approach will indeed “kill joy and creativity”. And in 50 years people won’t be laughing. They’ll be crying in despair.

 

*Grammatical terms to be taught to English 5-6 year-olds: word, sentence, letter, capital letter, full stop, punctuation, singular, plural, question mark, exclamation mark. In Finland, top-performer in PISA tests, children are not expected to learn about capital letters and terminal sentence punctuation until Grade 1 (age 7-8).

A longer description of the reaction of Blunkett and Blair can be found on pages 54/55 of  The Unfinished Revolution:  Learning, Human Behavior, Community, and Political Paradox by John Abbott and Terry Ryan.

 
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