Adrian Barlow, Former President of the English Association, shares some of his thoughts on the changing landscape of English education.
Outstanding English teaching has everything to do with communication – not simply, however, with teaching our students how to communicate effectively, persuasively, considerately in all the different ways modern life demands. I mean more than this.
I mean more, too, than helping them learn how to recognise and value the skill of good and honest communication by others when they meet it, hear it or read it. ‘Fake news’ is news right now, but it has always been part of our work as English teachers to give students the skills and confidence to discriminate between what is fake and what is genuine – whether on social media, in the Press and on TV, on stage and film or in the pages of a novel and the lines of a poem.
More even than this, outstanding English teaching means communicating our own enthusiasm for English, both as language and as literature, so that our students see it matters to us and come to feel it matters to them too. Every subject in the curriculum can help us shape the way in which we see ourselves and see ourselves in the world; no other subject encourages us to develop our creative imagination, our ability to see the world differently, as English does.
Talking about English like this may seem at odds (to put it mildly) with the reality of teaching today in a system dominated by the language of targets, assessment regimes and objectives, bullet points and accountability measures. Writing recently in the English Association Newsletter, Geoff Barton asks ‘Whatever Happened to English?’:
A subject that means so much to us, which opened imaginative doors for so many of us, which deepened our sense of humanity, of culture, of language, of life, a subject so many of us have devoted our lives to – across our schools and colleges, is morphing into something we barely recognise.
Geoff Barton has been for many years one of the clearest and most respected voices in English teaching. After analysing the damaging effects on English of using examination results not only to assess students’ attainment but to measure the performance of teachers, departments and schools, he sums up the present condition of English thus:
In too many schools we see teachers teaching mechanistic schemes of work mechanistically. The rage for conformity, for measuring students’ progress every six weeks, for monitoring and reporting – these have left English as we knew it fighting for its life.
At the heart of it all is the child. Thus a government that bangs frequently on about social mobility presides over the withering of a subject that was always the engine of social mobility – giving young people the knowledge, culture, language and insights that opened new worlds to them.
I agree with Geoff Barton, and when I speak on April 17th I shall argue that outstanding English teaching is teaching delivered by teachers who are determined, despite all the pressures for compliance and conformity, to continue opening new worlds to the students with whom they work.