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The State of Education

The State of Education was a ticketed panel event held at Chichester Festival Theatre on 13 May, predicated on the venue’s current production of Forty Years On. The panel consisted of Sheila Legrave, David Sword, Imogen Stubbs and me with Kate Mosse in the chair. This is the text of what I said in my five minute opening speech.

In the 1970s when I was – somewhat clumsily –  launching myself as an English teacher you could teach what you liked – and we did.

Until the students were 14 or so and hit the limitations of an O level or CSE syllabus you could teach Dickens, Shakespeare, fabulous poetry, read extracts from whatever moved you and learn to read and use lots and lots of wonderful words in imaginative ways.

Trouble was with that was that in many schools there was no syllabus at all for English.  Decisions were left to individual teachers – Some were lazy. Some were, sad to say, intellectually limited especially in the secondary modern-type school.

When I came to this very city in 1965 to do a three-year teacher training certificate the entry requirement was 5 O levels, in any subjects you liked. So, there were, when I started out many teachers who weren’t exactly academically inclined.

Then in the late 1980s came the National Curriculum which I initially thought was a good idea. It would, at last, give every child the opportunities that previously had been denied to those saddled with indifferent teachers.

If only.

What has actually happened is that the curriculum has got ever narrower and the students have ever less fun with those all-important words.

Secondary students have to do one Shakespeare play. We cheerfully did at least one a year with each class when I was in charge of an English department.

Then there’s the single pre-1900 novel and the banal list of poems. Of course, you can do more and many schools do but there’s a dispiriting sense of lowest common denominator at work.

Or to put that another way, if you don’t have to do it why bother?

No wonder student vocabulary seems to be shrinking. And at primary level there is so much focus on “learning to read” –  phonics, spilt diagraphs and all the rest of it – that in many cases they seem to forget to teach them to read – books and stories –  at all.

Well, if you stay in education for 40 years or so and stick to your guns you can reckon to be in fashion three times.

So, I’m much encouraged – as well as wryly amused – by a story in last week’s Sunday Times. Amanda Speilman, Chief Inspector of Schools is concerned that children are leaving school without the cultural knowledge they need to succeed.

Really? Well spotted Ms Spellman. Some of us have been saying this for 30 years and more.

The result is that “some of England’s leading state schools” are creating lists of books that children must read and poems they must learn.

And Sian Griffiths, the Sunday Times education editor who wrote the piece had found lots of enthusiastic teachers and students all busy reading The Mayor of Casterbridge, Kubla Khan and The Lady of Shalott. Bravo. It will lead to a deeper knowledge and understanding of words and that has the potential to enhance every other aspect of life. You need words to think with. Please let’s encourage it.

Further information about this event and the discussion it sparked will be posted soon on Chichester Festival Theatre’s website.

 

 

Author information
Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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