Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Gove's proposals beggar belief.

The government which promised less top-down micro-management from the centre has, only some two months after dictating how primary school teachers should teach children to read (see post of 9th April)  now come up with proposals for the primary school curriculum  which are so unrealistic that we must question whether  the Department of Education and its Secretary of State live on the same planet.

Among the most achievable, but pointless, is that children must learn to spell a centrally-prescribed list of words. Since teaching to the test is necessary for a school to maintain its place in the league tables, this will inevitably lead to  less emphasis on the correct spelling of the words the children actually use.

From 2014 all children are to be taught at least one foreign language from the age of seven.  This is to redress the decline of foreign languages taken  in the 16+ and 18+ examinations.  Very laudable, of course. But since this decline has already taken place, one wonders where the government expects to find the teachers to teach these languages in every primary school.  Clearly a somewhat longer time scale is needed.

The teaching of statistics in primary schools is to be slimmed down to make way for more mental arithmetic.  Is this so that the right-wing may more easily fool is into believing their propaganda that the present method of  defining poverty (family income less than 60% of the median) means that poverty cannot be eliminated since there will always be people below the median income? (There will, but they needn't be 60% below it: in fact no-one need earn less than 60% of the median, so by this definition poverty in the UK can be eliminated.)

Most puzzling is that children are to learn "the use of the subjunctive by the end of year 6." Either Mr Gove is completely batty or he has been mis-reported.(  I did after all read it in the Grauniad, but what else could they have meant?)  I'm aware of only two uses of the subjunctive in English.  One is illustrated, I'm assured,  by "God save the Queen," though that has always seemed to me to be more of an imperative, giving God His orders, than a subjunctive, the realm of what might be, hinting that under certain circumstances God might not save the Queen.  The other is the use of "were" rather than "was" after "if", as in "If I were a blackbird I'd whistle and sing."

There's probably more to it than that, and I'd be happy to receive  further enlightenment, so please make full use of the "comments" facility, as I'm fond of arcane information.  So, actually, are many children in year 6, but it's usually more to do with dinosaurs than  the more obscure corners of English grammar.

When I studied French under the old "A" level system, that is, before the introduction of AS and further "top-down" dictation of what should be taught and when, our teacher decided that our class  not capable of coping with the French use of the subjunctive  until the second year of the course. And that's how it should be. The function of the government in education is not to prescribe what should be learned, but to provide sufficient funds for decent schools, and teachers knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their subjects, good communicators and capable of judging what their pupils should learn and when they are ready to learn it.


  1. On the subjunctive, there was a letter in The Guardian last week which said: "After more than 60 years, I still remember our French teacher's pronouncement: "There's only one thing you need to know about the subjunctive – and that's how to avoid having to use it." I'm sure we could easily do the same.
    I hope the central spelling list includes accommodation, separate, supersede and desiccated. We certainly have lots of quaint spellings to choose from which no rules will help with. In this regard I like ancient. It looks like parrot-style learning will be back and those dreadful 1950s - for those who existed through them - brought back into zombie style life.

  2. So this is 'freedom'? The language concept is as you say worthy but fatuous. Latin and Greek have been destroyed over the past twenty years so that there are very few trained teachers in these subjects. Who is going to teach Mandarin?
    The idea that one period a week of 40 minutes is going to transform language teaching in primary (and become a platform for secondary schools)is ludicrous.
    The inability of English children to learn foreign languages is not going to be solved by political correctness. Sadly our children cannot learn English any more. Gove needs to go back to school himself.