Leading Article: Grammar under the hammer

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THE GOVERNMENT'S advisers have good reason to want to strengthen and clarify the national curriculum for English. The present version, introduced to schools three years ago, reads as it was written: by a committee under pressure to compromise between politicians on one side and professionals on the other. Brian Cox, the Manchester University English professor who chaired that committee, did succeed in setting some rigorous learning targets. He also provided English teachers with a valuable focus for debate. Healthy argument has exposed some woolliness in the Cox document, so the National Curriculum Council has revised it. Unfortunately, however, it appears from the leaked draft reported in the Independent yesterday that the council is waving a sledgehammer over an already half-cracked nut.

As it stands, the English curriculum is open to too wide a range of interpretation on standard English, early reading skills and the spread of literature pupils should read. There are problems about teachers' own knowledge of good grammar, which the Government has not helped to improve: ministers refused to publish useful curricular materials designed to improve teachers' knowledge. But most English teachers now accept the importance of pupils being able to speak and write correctly. Most have also recognised the importance of introducing all pupils to our national literary heritage. There remain some who seem unable to understand that correct English, far from being 'traditionalist' and 'right wing', is actually a tool of liberation for the least-advantaged children. But they are a minority which deserves to go on dwindling.

The vaguest features of the curriculum need tidying up. Instead, the council is contemplating a top-to-bottom revision. In a few places, the draft going before the full council today is mildly bizarre: surely children should learn to use apostrophes before they are 13? But such outlandishness is exceptional: broadly, the proposals are a fair summary of what most parents would like their children to learn. The problem is that they are too prescriptive.

National curriculum orders are items of legislation. Is it really necessary to lay down in law the specific parts of grammar that should be taught at a particular age? It is easy to see why ministers should make the attempt: too often in the past they have pulled education policy levers and watched nothing happen. Their despair was reflected by frustration among parents. There is now a risk, however, of the curriculum law being wielded too heavily.

The test is whether the council's approach will achieve its end: to pull parents and teachers together in a new consensus over standards and aims of English teaching. In the present climate, with English teachers threatening to boycott this summer's tests, the council's proposals may have the reverse effect. They may prove to be the last straw for many good English teachers, who feel they are again being told that they do not know how to do their job.

The council should simplify its proposals. Its more prescriptive detail should be published separately, as a manual of strong guidance. Then the new curriculum and assessment authority being set up later this year can ensure that the testing regime leads teachers in the right direction.