Leading Article: English as it is taught

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The Independent Online
WHEN ministers ordered a review of the English curriculum last September, they knew its outcome would be controversial. It would, however, have been hard to predict that the proposals would be launched into the middle of a conflagration, largely stoked by English teachers' anger at national curriculum testing. The timing is terrible.

As it stands, however, the English curriculum is too woolly. It leaves too many matters open to individual interpretation: which kinds of books should be read and when, for example, or the extent to which teachers should insist on pupils using grammatically 'correct' English.

English teachers are deeply conscientious, and determined to inspire the pupils in their charge. No one is criticising their commitment. But they cannot pretend there is no problem when employers say that up to one in four recruits are functionally illiterate (unable to read and interpret basic instructions, for example). It is, perhaps, even more shocking that university tutors are considering introducing remedial classes for degree course entrants because they are unable to write clear essays and articulate ideas in seminars. In France or Germany these facts would be viewed by parents and teachers as scandalous.

The National Curriculum Council is therefore right to try to mark out more clearly what it expects pupils to learn. The proposals published yesterday slice out a lot of the present curriculum's superfluous verbiage and write in a great deal of new material. But little of it is so offensive as to be unbearable. When the first draft was leaked to the Independent two months ago, it looked too prescriptive; the redraft is more temperate, while remaining tough in the demands it places on teachers.

Most importantly, English teachers should recall why they are feeling so angry. When the testing authority set about trying to assess the curriculum for 11- to 14-year-olds, it found that the learning targets were so vague that it had to prescribe texts and publish an anthology. In other words, the testers had to define the curriculum in order to be able to test it. The new proposals offer a better base for testing.

Sadly, however, these arguments are unlikely to persuade teachers of English. Most do not think their subject needed to be reviewed at all. They feel broadly happy with the existing orders. Even if they were in a better mood today, they would have protested at further changes in the curriculum so soon after its introduction. Given the present climate, English departments will probably find it hard to see past the red rags in order to read the new proposals.

The next three months of consultation will inevitably bring a deluge of professional protest. English provoked the rush to a general testing boycott; now it will become the battlefield for the national curriculum as a whole. Sir Ron Dearing, who takes over responsibility for the curriculum and testing on Monday, is taking on a heavy task. Ministers are, in a sense, fortunate: they can batten down and wait for the hurricane to blow itself out. Sir Ron, somehow, will have to start clearing up the national curriculum mess while the whirlwind rages around his ears.