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There won’t be time for English in English

The Draft National Curriculum for English, Key Stages 1 and 2, is so prescriptive it will allow little time for creative reading and writing. Robert Hull is concerned.


t is a basic teaching skill, to learn to handle classroom time. It takes years of professional practice to develop even a rough sense of the likely temporal dimensions of a task, a project, a diversion. Hardly surprising then, that those whose lives are lived and careers pursued

outside the classroom but who nonetheless plan for it are fundamentally unable to see the implications for classroom time of the things they suggest teachers do there. For the children themselves, the implications of a remorseless curricular discreteness such as that endorsed by the new draft National English Curriculum, Key Stages 1 and 2 are likely to be a continual – even continuous - loss of creative opportunities, notably a diminution in the amount of time available for extended writing and reading.

I already see, from my grandchildren’s work in junior schools, a pedagogic preference for the brief, circumscribed task, relating to the single curricular language item. A grand-daughter, age 7, recently came home with a homophones task, to find 30 of them. She had fun looking for them for an hour, but she loves writing too. Does it take an hour to find out what a homophone is, and locate a few?

It is worrying, in fact, how seldom the home-work I’ve seen for children of about 7 to 10 involves extended writing or reading. It tends to be work packaged in exercises, spelling lists, punctuation, word-meanings, and so on. It would be interesting to know how much of children’s time is spent, overall, on a kind of micro-English, on exercises and preparations for writing and reading, rather than on writing of some scope, and the reading of whole books – real live books, not shelves of mainly tedious, enthusiasm-numbing reading schemes.

Children’s time and the discrete task

In a New Scientist article, Dream a Little Dream (June 16, 2012) Richard Fisher’s summary of the results of one particular experiment in creativity seems wholly relevant. Jonathan Schooler at the University of California found that ‘people whose minds had been wandering’ – they had been engaged in an undemanding task, while another group had been intently focused on a tricky question – ‘came up with 40% more answers’ to a problem that was subsequently set them.

Transposed to the classroom, this suggests that children’s potential for developing intellectually through extended writing and reading may be routinely undercut by the kind of remorseless focus on small-scale tasks entailed by the implementation of this curriculum. Whole classes, continuously subject to the need to learn items of knowledge through exercise of the focused mind’s ‘executive control’, as Fisher’s puts it, are likely to fare far less well ultimately than they would do in creative, civilised classrooms.

Classrooms exist where children enjoy writing, and reading, and talking informally about what they read and write. These classrooms are creative places, and children like being there. They tend to be relaxed classrooms, where minds can do some fertile wandering, without worrying overmuch about a looming test or ‘screening’ event. Children are respected there.

But testing, at Sats, or in 11 plus exams and other school entrance exams, is now a pervasive, even visible feature of our culture. Books of sample 11-plus and Sats tests, tests in verbal and non-verbal reasoning,

16 Books for Keeps No.198 January 2013

and many others, are thick on the shelves of bookshops, and garnish many a kitchen or dining room table in the houses of those who aspire for their children. These books of tests all pay homage, in effect, to the discrete task.

The questions they pose demand intense, brief focus, and analytical skills which are not necessarily those of creative work. They are intended for the focused mind in ‘executive control’. Nothing expansive or large-scale is usually invited by way of response. As cultural artefacts they might, indeed, be considered the antithesis of the open-endedly creative. But many children are induced to spend a great deal of time working at such test books, and some may spend further hours being intensively tutored for Sats or 11-plus exams, since it is evident that coping with the discrete task of the testing culture is now seen as an unambiguous register of children’s abilities. The psycho-metric paradigm, in other words, has won out.

So urgent is all this activity that one has to ask whether the practices and pedagogies of creative classrooms aren’t to an extent threatened by the assumptions and practices of a testing culture, as it seems, increasingly, to infiltrate schooling. And does not the Draft National Curriculum for English endorse, through its detailed prescriptiveness and its continual testing ‘checks’ on the take-up of so many items of knowledge, a similar shift towards working with small units of time on confined, discrete tasks ?

As for ‘rigour’, however ‘rigorous’ tests like the 11-plus and Sats – and now, for heaven’s sake, Phonics tests at age 6 – might seem to be in themselves, their dominance testifies to a broad intellectual enfeeblement in the culture that in uncritically endorsing them ensures that the brakes are continually applied to hundreds of thousands of children’s development. n

Robert Hull’s third collection of poems for children, High Tide, was published by Salt in 2010. He has written extensively for children, and published three books for teachers. He was a classroom teacher for 30 years, and has worked as a writer in schools since the early 90s. He is a regular contributor to educational magazines.

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