Howard Jacobson: There's much to be said for the old ways of teaching. At least they worked

How bad is it? Five million of us are leaving school without having mastered basic literacy
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The Independent Online

"Read this column at your peril." And now tell me, in simple terms, what message those words convey to you. Am I encouraging you to go on reading or am I warning you to go no further? Exclude all subtle or devious explanations, as for example that I am luring you into reading by exciting you with the prospect of danger. I want an uncomplicated answer to an uncomplicated question: what does "at your peril" signal? Stop, go, or please yourself.

The other night on Big Brother – as a reporter from that zone of devastation which is our culture I see it as my duty to watch Big Brother, if only so that you don't have to – a contestant was told to go on doing what she was doing "at her peril". After much contortion of her features – recognisable to any student of the human physiognomy as indicators of being buggered if you know what someone is talking about – she decided that at "her peril" must mean at her discretion, or for her delectation, or nothing in particular. Her face cleared. "Thank you, Big Brother," she said sweetly. In her considered view she'd been told there was nothing to worry about and she could proceed.

It's not a good idea, at any time, to be ignorant of the meaning of the word "peril". You can live a tolerable life without knowing what "underpinning" means, as another contestant admitted the evening before, but in the present condition of society you are confused about the meaning of at your peril at your peril. And in this case, since Rachel, the contestant in question, is a trainee teacher, at your future pupils' peril too.

We are accustomed to Big Brother housemates lacking words to the same degree they lack modesty and discretion. I don't doubt that some of them are chosen on this very basis: a small vocabulary being an earnest of a genuine and spontaneous personality, as though the fewer words you can call on, the less able you are to practise subterfuge or be anything other, in Big Brother parlance, than "yourself". "Bubbly" is the favoured word for the ideally authentic female housemate, and words prick bubbles.

But at least Jade and Big Brother's other unspoilt children of nature down the years have not been teachers. I have no idea at what level of the teaching profession Rachel intends to practise but if I were the parent of a two-year-old I would be taking him away from any school that teaches him to read "at your peril" as a green light to do whatever he fancies doing.

So just how bad is it out there? According to a series entitled Can't Read, Can't Write, just finished on Channel 4, worse even than we think, with something like five million of us leaving school without having mastered basic literacy. The programmes were presented with feigned unapologetic craggy charmlessness and souped-up indignation by Phil Beadle – touted as the best teacher in England, which might not mean much if Rachel is the standard. Phil Beadle's pedagogic shtick is unconventionality, which makes him, as a contemporary pedagogue, the most conventional man on the planet, though that is not to deny that the programmes were deeply affecting by virtue of the sadness and frustration of the people we encountered who could not read or write, and by the joy they experienced when they finally succeeded in doing both. For which, and for the time he gave to them, the presence of cameras notwithstanding, hats off to Mr Beadle.

For all that Beadle's worked-up ire was reserved for the education system that allows pupils to sit at desks for years and learn nothing, the programmes themselves showed that a vile parent or a hysterically obdurate personality, a learning disorder or the plain bad luck of social deprivation, could be just as instrumental in confining people to the prison of illiteracy. That there is no one way, therefore, of releasing them into the bracing air of competence – I say competence because there was no deficiency of curiosity, intelligence or articulacy – the programmes made abundantly clear, though of those subjects who were not much improved by Beadle's "unconventional" methods we heard less and less as the series progressed. Not surprising – television prefers success to failure. And it's no mark against Beadle that he didn't hit the jackpot every time; doesn't matter how you teach, someone will always be left behind. That does mean, however, that the field remains open for the next best teacher in England who wants to strike out in some new fashion.

But what if new fashion is itself the culprit? Watching Phil Beadle spill his guts, drop his aitches, glottal stop, rend his soul, cry a bit, laugh a bit, swear a bit, in general fall over himself not to act or look or sound like someone in authority, I wondered if I'd have learnt to read and write, or been so keen to read and write, had I had him as a teacher. Nothing works for everyone, but if the problem of illiteracy is worse now than it was, might that not be because the old methods worked well enough, that while some of us were put off by teachers who wore gowns and taught at the blackboard and gave us rules and did not pretend that they were dickheads, more of us were not. Progressive teaching has much to answer for, and while I can't prove that that includes five million adults who can't read or write, I ask whether it can be any coincidence that the further we step back from authoritative teacher-centred learning the more uneducated we become.

Moved as I was by the series, anyway, I could not avoid the conclusion that Phil Beadle is representative of the very wrong he is offering to right. We are not pedantic in this column. We accept that anyone can make a mistake. But it didn't augur well for the all-round educatedness of the enterprise that Phil Beadle began each episode with the same aggressively solecistic piece to camera: "It's tragic. We as a body of professionals have to come up with a solution to this, because it's been laying festering for too long." Didn't he, as a "professional", know, or shouldn't someone else, as professionals, have known for him, that while a dead chicken might lay festering, a problem lies? That the wrong spelling of the verb "to practise" was allowed to go up in the final credits (that should be "practise", folks; "practice" is the noun in this country) only compounded the irony and further proved my point – you look for literacy (correction, li'eracy) on television at your peril.