Yesterday all seven and eleven-year-old children in our top-down education system were required to take tests in grammar, spelling and punctuation, and mathematics. A number of parents, sadly only a minority, withdrew their children in protest.
One of the grammar questions required the children to recognise a "subordinating conjunction," something I suspect 98% of English speakers have never heard of (and which the minister for schools, Nick Gibb, failed to recognise correctly whilst on air on the BBC.) Much of the reporting gives the impression that this item was on the test for seven-year-olds, whom* I should have though would have difficulty in pronouncing it, never mind identifying one. But even at eleven this is hardly a useful skill.
When I was tying to improve my French one of my language partners claimed that he knew "instinctively" which nouns were masculine and which feminine. I think "instinctively" is the wrong word: rather "osmosis" - he knew becasue he'd been exposed to the distinction all his life. Much the same applies to our acquisition of the grammar of our mother tongue: we pick it up by hearing it and reading it. This point is splendidly made by Harry Ritchie in "English for the Natives - Discover the Grammar You Don't Know you Know."
For those who claim that children left to this chance osmosis may pick up "wrong" habits I recommend Simon Horobin's recently published "How English became English." Horobin is an Oxford professor, no less, but is much less fussy than I would be about what is and what isn't "correct." (For example, he would see the use of the accusative "whom" above, rather than the nominative "who", as over-fussy, and would even tolerate "yous" (maybe even "y'all" as in some regions of the US) as a plural form of "you" - which of course used to be the plural form anyway - singular "thou.") In truth, there is no permanently "correct" form of any language, however hard the "Immortals" try with French. All languages are constantly evolving.
A claim by a pundit on a radio programme I heard yesterday, that a solid foundation in English grammar is necessary for learning a foreign language, puts the cart before the horse. It is the learning of a foreign language that reveals the grammar of our own, which so far we had understood "instinctively" (or by osmosis.)
What children need to do to acquire a fluent command of English, is to read, and read, and read, and then read some more. Elevated literature is fine, but any connected prose is acceptable. I grew up on a diet of Biggles and Just William, the serials in the Wizard and the Hotspur and war and detective stories galore. Today the genre will be different (Horrible Histories, perhaps, Winnie the Witch. Probably Harry Potter is no longer cool)
All teachers know that to progress learners need to succeed rather than fail. By training and experience teachers know when to encourage fluency in both speaking and writing regardless of accuracy, and when, gradually, to introduce improvements to pronunciation, vocabulary, spelling, punctuation and grammar
But most of all our primary schools should be concentrating on generating an enthusiasm for reading, and leave the grammar to look after itself. And similarly our politicians should leave the teaching to the teachers, who know what they doing, rather than impose priorities based on prejudice rather than evidence.
PS (added 5th May)
Alas the Guardian has chosen not to print the letter I sent to them yesterday. Here it is:
You quote the head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw: "If by the age of seven a child [singular] has not mastered the basic skills of reading, writing and mathematics, the odds will be stacked against them [plural] for the rest of their lives." (Fun for some in scattered 'strikes' as debate over primary testing rolls on. 4 May 2016). Well, that should re-assure our stressed seven-year-olds that bad grammar is no obstacle to getting a knighthood and a posh job at the top of the educational tree.