Simon Gibbons’ article in the November 2015 issue of English in Education, the academic journal for the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE), asks an important, punning question in its title: “W(h)ither the Radicals?”. It is a salutary piece which explores whether it is possible for English teachers now to be radical in both their pedagogy and their approach to content of the subject. Gibbons says in his abstract for the article: “History shows us that some of the most radical reformers of subject English harnessed their political ideals in their pursuit of a progressive pedagogy; is it possible now to adopt such an approach?” This challenge motivated me to ask Simon to talk about the figures who have been radical English teachers in the past and see if there are any lessons we can learn from these people and the organisations involved. Simon’s book, The London Association for the Teaching of English (LATE) 1947-67, explores the establishment of LATE and its influence upon English teaching in the 50s and 60s. In the video, he talks with Michael Rosen about LATE. I have taken the step of suggesting that LATE and then later its “bigger sister” NATE, which was partly set up because of the success of LATE and other similar regional organisations, improved English teaching in five key points. I should add this is my interpretation and not necessarily what Simon or Michael think; you can watch the video for their views.
As Simon points out in the interview, LATE was established because many English teachers in London felt the need to discuss not only what they should be teaching in English lessons but also how it should be taught. As Simon says, the 1944 Education Act presented many challenges for the teaching profession; most teachers were not properly trained and had scant resources to teach with. But as Michael suggests in the interview, what might be termed “standards” rise when teachers talk to each other about what they might teach and how they might teach it; this is what LATE was established for. It was a genuinely grassroots collective movement.
A strong case can be made that LATE and then later on NATE, improved the standards of teaching and learning in the classrooms of its members because these teachers were actively engaging with new (and more traditional) pedagogies. As Simon informs us in the interview and in his book, LATE members carried out what might be termed now “action research” projects which examined the ways in which teachers could help children to improve their ability to write stories (called imaginative composition), their cognitive talk, their reading skills, their drama skills and so forth. The ideas about oracy which the academic/teacher Jimmy Britton and other LATE members advocated remain radical to this day.
It was uplifting to hear Simon talk about the ways in which LATE took a very broad view of what might be termed Continuing Professional Development (CPD), in that the organisation encouraged English teachers to go to the theatre/opera/museums etc. and to read literary texts that they knew their students wouldn’t probably read. LATE created a vibrant literary culture of its own amongst its members with various book groups and discussion forums. There was the realisation that English teachers become better teachers if a) they are happy and fulfilled b) culturally/politically informed.
LATE and then later NATE became powerful lobbying voices within the profession, influencing the ways in which schools, local authorities and politicians thought about education. Their collective voices had genuine power – and still do have in some quarters. LATE remains a very popular organisation for English teachers in London to be part of; I know this personally because I’ve attended a number of their excellent conferences/workshops. They have strong links with the British Film Institute (BFI) and other educational organisations. Similarly, NATE continues to promote good English teaching with its publications, its conferences and CPD sessions etc. Post-1988 both LATE and NATE, like all professional teaching associations, have been largely ignored by the ruling political elite in Whitehall, but this doesn’t mean they don’t have power. Most engaged English teachers are much happier to take advice from LATE/NATE than the Education Secretary; they may be obliged to “obey” the edicts of central government, but this doesn’t mean they agree with them. NATE/LATE’s power remains in the cogency of their arguments, their detailed research and deep knowledge, which has been built up over decades now.
Both NATE/LATE were, and are, inclusive; English teachers with lots of different views come together under their umbrella. Teachers at private schools, comprehensives, grammars, FE colleges etc. all mingle at their conferences and workshop. The spirit is genuinely inclusive. I’d say the overall pedagogical spirit is progressive but this doesn’t mean that a wide spectrum of English teachers – from prescriptive grammarians to revolutionary Marxists – don’t attend their conferences. The atmosphere is always all-encompassing and everyone’s opinion is listened to. I know this because I’ve sat in on many LATE/NATE sessions myself, and led a few.