Inside story: Illiterate England: So wot if I dont write proper? Miss says my spelling dont matter cos thats how I talk. Judith Judd and Sarah Strickland on the war raging over the teaching of English

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'WILL them photos be going in the paper?' a child asked our photographer. We were at St Gregory's Roman Catholic Primary School in Chorley, Lancashire and, if the Government has its way, teachers will in future leap upon such a child and demand grammatically correct English.

Linda Caswell, the head, believes that they should do no such thing. She says that substituting 'them' for 'those' is one of her pupils' most common linguistic inaccuracies, along with using 'were' instead of 'was' and 'could of' instead of 'could have'. But this is how many people speak in this part of Lancashire, and some linguists would describe the children's 'errors' as part of a perfectly acceptable and consistent dialect grammar.

Mrs Caswell, however, says that the school does teach standard English and grammar, as well as spelling and punctuation. The point, she insists, is that they must learn to use standard English when they need it. 'The first thing,' she says, 'is to get them to speak in sentences. We want them to speak freely and express themselves without fear of having linguistic insults thrown at them. If they are forced to change the moment they come to school it will inhibit their progress. It's very important not to discourage the dialect, but to make sure children know when and where it is appropriate to use it.'

'Children may have several different ways of speaking,' says another teacher. 'You can never eradicate dialect altogether because they spend as much time with other adults as with us.'

Mrs Caswell has strong views about dialect because she is Scottish and, looking out of her window on a wet day, will remark on 'dubs' rather than 'puddles'. 'The Government should think carefully before it intrudes on the cultural heritage of our children,' she says. 'I am proud of my language and they are of theirs.'

THE teaching of English arouses stronger views than any other section of the school curriculum. Traditionalists argue that, without correct grammar and spelling, the country goes to the dogs - Lord Tebbit, the former Tory party chairman, once blamed football hooliganism on the decline of grammar lessons. 'English,' said Michael Fallon, a junior education minister until the last election, 'is the linchpin of our education system. If we allow cultural relativism to creep into English it becomes more difficult to establish a sense of order in other subjects.' Teachers who favour a greater emphasis on creative expression argue that grammar exercises may be just a way of keeping the lower orders in their place. Anne Barnes, a leading member of the National Association for the Teaching of English, says: 'If you can make a series of hurdles which children have to jump over to speak and write English in an acceptable way, it is a good way to control society. Society is much more difficult to control if you make everyone articulate and fluent.'

Last week, the arguments surfaced into open warfare, threatening the first significant disruption of schools since the teachers' pay strikes of the mid- 1980s. The National Union of Teachers announced that a test of opinion among its members had shown overwhelming support for a boycott of English tests for 14-year-olds, due this summer. The union believes that these hurriedly introduced tests are bad enough, but things are likely to become worse. On Thursday, the Government's advisers on the national curriculum discussed proposals for a complete change in the English curriculum.

Ministers approved the existing curriculum - the first national definition of what children should learn - less than four years ago. The schools have barely started teaching it. Yet some advisers on the National Curriculum Council think it is far too sloppy about spelling, grammar and punctuation. So does John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education.

The present curriculum is based on such generalities as children learning to use 'those grammatical structures which are characteristic of written language'. The proposed new curriculum - details of which were leaked to the Independent - is far more precise and prescriptive. At seven, children must use capital letters and full stops correctly; at 11, commas; at 13, apostrophes and speech marks; at 16, colons and semi-colons. Seven-year-olds should use sentences in which subject and verb agree, syntax is logical and tenses correct. Nine-year-olds should say 'isn't' and 'haven't' rather than 'ain't'. They should also know the difference between there, their and they're. Eleven- year-olds should spell 'business', 'processing' and 'signature' correctly, while 15- and 16-year-olds should be able to cope with 'accommodate', 'acquaintance' and 'conscience'. The revised curriculum would also, for the first time, list the authors that children should read at certain ages.

Ministers are certain to welcome such proposals. They believe that standards of literacy have declined and sloppy English teaching is to blame. Employers, parents and university dons, they point out, complain endlessly about poor spelling and grammar among the young. A-level examiners lament the problems annually. Last month, for example, the history examiners for one board reported that many candidates 'appeared unable confidently and consistently to write in sentences'. Some pupils, they complained, wrote 'would of' for 'would have'. 'Interllectual', 'realy', 'speach', 'definately', 'persuit' and 'tradgic' were among the misspellings.

'English syntax appears to be dead; replaced by classroom argot,' reported the examiners for A-level philosophy, 'Consonants, together with the apostrophe and question mark, have vanished from too many essays.'

Examiners for both English and history were exasperated by the use of slang. Jane Eyre, candidates wrote, was 'over the top'. Lear was 'round the twist'. 'Willy Conq . . . had to let the English know who was boss.'

All this, ministers and their allies claim, is the result of 'trendy' teaching methods. Not even the most extreme Tory traditionalist wants to bring back the arid grammatical exercises of the 19th century, when children were required to parse sentences. These had disappeared from all but a few schools by the 1920s - 'to the joy of children and teachers', according to a committee appointed at the time by the president of the board of education. But, in the late 1950s and 1960s, the traditionalists argue, the reaction against formal teaching went too far. Children were encouraged to think firstly about what they were saying and only secondly about grammar and spelling. To the bemusement of thousands of parents, children brought home essays full of misspelt words, missing commas and ungrammatical sentences. The essays not only lacked the expected corrections in red ink; in many cases, teachers praised them and awarded high marks.

ENGLISH teachers have two answers to claims that their methods are responsible for declining standards. First, they do not accept that standards have declined. Like, they say, is not being compared with like. Thirty or 40 years ago, many fewer children took A-levels. The proportion of young people taking degree courses has risen from about 6 per cent in the 1950s to more than 20 per cent now. Similarly, employers who now complain about illiteracy among young employees were recruiting, 30 or 40 years ago, from the section of the population that now goes to university. The perception that standards have declined is linked to social and occupational change. There have always been people who spelt badly. In the past, most of them took unskilled jobs, which required few writing skills. But the number of unskilled jobs available has declined dramatically. This is why so many people - particularly unemployed people - tell opinion pollsters that they have 'problems' with literacy. They are not illiterate in the sense that they cannot read or write at all. They do find, however, that their literacy skills are inadequate for the only jobs available.

A good test of this theory is the greengrocer's apostrophe (tomatoe's). It has become a symbol of illiterate England. Yet it has been decorating fruit and vegetable stalls for at least 30 years - long before schools embraced liberal attitudes to punctuation.

The teachers' second answer to the charges against them is that an old-fashioned emphasis on the rules of spelling and grammar will do nothing to improve literacy in the widest sense. Traditional exercises and tests may ensure that children use language correctly but not that they use it confidently or enthusiastically. They will write a few stilted and impeccably grammatical sentences, but nothing more.

Norman Thomas, former chief inspector for primary schools, recalls teaching in a Hertfordshire primary in 1956 when the children had to work through books of English exercises such as putting a comma after 'Yes' and 'No' in a series of sentences. Children who excelled at these exercises were often mediocre writers, he says.

Anne Barnes says that her association has no quarrel with the Government over the importance of grammar, spelling and punctuation. It takes issue over the best way to teach them. 'Our view,' she says, 'is that if we get children to write fluently and interestingly, they can then learn to write correctly.'

Teachers at St Gregory's agree. Pam Carter, head of infants, introduces pupils to commas and full stops. 'It can take children two or three years to assimilate them,' she said. 'You have to look at the individual child and get them as far as you can. If children are having difficulty expressing themselves you don't start worrying about punctuation. And if they can't write a sentence there's nothing for you to work on.'

The same applies to standard English, say teachers and primary school inspectors. 'If dialect is accurate,' says Norman Thomas, 'you don't correct it. You say that is one way of saying it, but this is the way which has wider currency. You don't say 'You don't talk proper at home. Talk proper here'.'

Andrew Morley, deputy head at St Gregory's, says that when children use regional expressions in class he will stop and question them. 'I would want to know what they meant and what the correct, standard English version was,' he says. 'But you can't always jump on them straight away because there's enough pressure on them as it is when they are trying to convey their ideas.'

Children, teachers always emphasise, are different. Some eight- and nine-year-olds at St Gregory's have progressed far beyond the capital and full stop that the new curriculum would require for seven-year-olds and are already trespassing on 11- and 13-year-old territory. One boy knows that a comma allows you to 'have a little break in the sentence if it's not the end', an exclamation mark is for 'when you know something is exciting' and that 'you put speech marks down when somebody is speaking'.

THE TEACHERS at St Gregory's put their arguments quietly and rationally. But the war of the commas and apostrophes will be a dirty one.

Last weekend, the Mail on Sunday reported that it had received 'a startling dossier' on how the left was trying 'to dominate state school English teaching'. The National Association for the Teaching of English - the main professional association for English teachers - had 'drawn up a highly political agenda' to challenge the Government's plans. The association, the newspaper alleged, was little more than a Marxist front. Michael Fallon agrees. He described the association last week as 'an insidious body which seems to have been captured by one wing of English teachers which believes in cultural indoctrination'.

The association's numbers have increased by a third over the past five years. And it is true that one of its branches was the first teachers' organisation to canvass support for a boycott of the English tests. Yet disquiet about the Government's plans to revive old- fashioned methods is not confined to the state schools. The English teaching association has a substantial membership in independent schools. These are not obliged by law to teach the national curriculum and most have already decided that their pupils should not take this summer's tests for 14-year-olds.

Many teachers at independent schools are as opposed to formal English exercises as their state colleagues. Geoff Day, an English teacher at Winchester College, says: 'If you say to children 'Today, we are going to learn about the apostrophe', you can be sure that, for a month afterwards, they will use the apostrophe all over the place.' At this level, the war of the apostrophe also becomes the war of the split infinitive. The authors of the proposals for the new curriculum are against splitting the infinitive, allowing only that 16- year-olds may be told it has 'a degree of acceptance'. But Mr Day argues that 'the split infinitive is sometimes essential if you want to be forceful'.

What is even more remarkable is that, in their battle against prescription, teachers have the backing of Brian Cox, Professor of English at Manchester University. He was one of the editors of the Black Papers, published in the late 1960s, which first exposed the extremes of the 'progressive' movement.

And it was Professor Cox who drew up the English national curriculum that the Government is now preparing to scrap. When Kenneth Baker, then Secretary of State for Education, invited him in 1988 to chair a committee on English, the traditionalists thought triumph was close. They were startled and disappointed by his report. 'For those of us to whom Brian Cox was a hero, the report was a shock and reinforced all the absurdities we were trying to change,' Mr Fallon says. Though it emphasised the importance of spelling and grammar teaching, it rejected formal grammar lessons and tests. The right disliked the Cox notion that grammar was part of a living and changing language and were furious at the suggestion that dialect could be 'correct'. At Margaret Thatcher's insistence, the words 'where appropriate' were removed from the report's recommendation that children should write standard English.

But that could not change the report's drift, which was towards the centre ground. The report reasserted the importance of standard English but added that, if it was to be taught effectively, it should be 'in ways which do not denigrate the non-standard dialects spoken by many pupils'.

The report, by all accounts, was accepted by Mr Baker because civil servants mounted a kind of Yes, Minister exercise, in which they drew his attention to the passages extolling the importance of spelling and grammar.

Only when the report won wide acclaim from English teachers did ministers smell a rat. First, they intervened to toughen the tests for children of seven, 11 and 14. Later, their allies on the National Curriculum Council initiated a review of the entire English curriculum, which resulted in last week's leaked proposals.

Professor Cox, once reviled by the left as the 'Enoch Powell of education', is now equally reviled by the right. He believes he has changed a little but circumstances have changed more. 'My position today is very much as it has always been, between the progressives and the traditionalists.' In the 1960s, the excesses were coming from the progressives, now, he says, they are coming from a small group on the right, which has won key positions on the National Curriculum Council.

Both sides are determined to fight on. Yesterday, Baroness Blatch, a junior education minister, insisted that this summer's tests for 14-year-olds will go ahead, and accused opponents of having 'little genuine concern for the interests of pupils'. Mr Patten is almost certain to incorporate the proposals on English into the national curriculum. English teachers insist that they will ignore the revised curriculum; they must, as Professor Cox puts it, do what is right for their children.

But whoever wins, it is likely that many Chorley children will continue to say 'them' for 'those' and that many greengrocers will continue to misplace the apostrophe.

(Photograph omitted)

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