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. Previous pieces written by me in this series have explored the ideas of Harold Rosen and the establishment of LATE/NATE in the “pre-1988” era. For many teachers of a certain age, 1988 is a watershed moment because it was then that Kenneth Baker’s Education Act was passed, making it statutory for all teachers to follow the National Curriculum. In the video, Michael Rosen and Simon discuss the details of this act and its repercussions. In response to their comments, I’ve made another “listicle” suggesting 4 ways that 1988 harmed teaching and learning; I should add these are not necessarily Michael and Simon’s views, but my interpretation of what they said and some of my ideas thrown in for good measure.
Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educational philosopher, argued that educational prescriptions necessarily diminish teachers and students’ power. His argument is relatively simple: when you are ordered to do something, unless you rebel against the order, you often do not think about why you’re doing it or what the consequences of doing it might be. You become an “instrument” rather than an active agent. By denying the right for teachers to choose what might be suitable for their pupils to learn, the government robbed the profession of its autonomy and thereby stopped teachers thinking about why they were teaching the prescribed content. Teachers became “delivery mechanisms” to fill up students with knowledge. Rather than seeing knowledge as something which is constructed with the learner whilst in dialogue with the teacher, knowledge became inert, a dead body to be carted from lesson to lesson and plonked on students’ desks to dissect and poke around in. The act of prescribing the curriculum robbed teachers of a vital freedom which changed the mood and method of far too many lessons for the worse. Disenfranchised teachers went through the motions because they had no serious “stake” in what was taught.
As SG/MR point out, the marginalisation of teachers became progressively worse as successive National Curricula (NCs) were introduced over the succeeding decades. With the first NC in 1988, Brian Cox, who wrote the first English orders, consulted with teachers widely and modified his views in the light of what he heard. As Simon says though, he was over-ruled by the minister when the curriculum he produced was not politically palatable, particularly regarding the teaching of grammar. His Knowledge About Language (KAL) prescriptions remain the most enlightened set of instructions we have about the teaching of grammar in any NC. However, as Michael points out, experts like his father, Harold Rosen, were not prepared for the tenor and approach that Whitehall took; in previous years, there had been some sort of uneasy consensus between government and the profession about what was taught and examined. This changed from 1988 when consultation with the profession became a paper exercise. From 88 onwards, it was the will of the relevant minister which prevailed. This has meant that the profession has been continuously tossed around in the political winds of the succeeding decades.
Michael is particularly funny on this point when talking about the inclusion of “E Brill” as a prescribed author on one of the NC orders. No such author exists! Since 1988, the NC has constantly been “picked at” like a scab by successive politicians; the 1988 orders were quickly replaced in the early 1990s by another version which was less enlightened but not so heavy on detail, and then re-written again in the Noughties, and then re-written by the Coalition government and made statutory in 2014. This meant that teachers were constantly changing their lesson plans, their schemes of work, their textbooks and pedagogical approaches in an arbitrary fashion. Since 1988, there has been an air of pedagogical, epistemological and ontological confusion which has left many teachers, students and parents scratching their heads about what is really going on.
This is the central problem. For all the billions spent, the years devoted to implementing NC orders, have standards really risen? On one level they clearly have in that students have got better at passing exams. And yet on another level, have they? Has the NC brought up a generation of compliant robots who blindly follow the edicts of the neo-liberal society we live in? What’s happened to radical spirit of the 1960s and 70s? Why do we live in a society where inequality is growing, where private companies run roughshod over people’s lives, where we are faced with environmental catastrophe, where there is such intolerance, where unions are demonised and our rulers are from a wealthy, out-of-touch elite? Did the NC play its part in turning us into drones?