Libby Purves, writing in the Times today, has a perspective on the recent GCSE English grade debacle that is well worth listening to. The trouble with the Times is that you have to pay to read the stuff online, so I will try and put some of Libby Purves’ argument with few enough quotes to keep the copyright lawyers happy.

Her central argument is sound. We do children no favours at all, she avers, by refusing to correct their spelling, grammar, punctuation and basic literacy skills in the vain attempt to support their self-esteem and encourage them in fluency in writing.

Of all school disciplines, English matters the most. Clarity, confidence, communication are the bedrock of every other endeavour in education and in life: from physics to marketing, from engineering to law. Neglecting, downgrading and generally dumbing standards is a greater cruelty to children than anything visited on them by a clumsy exam board.

The biggest gripe from employers is the fact that the grasp of English language by their new employees, including graduates, is so appalingly low that the work they do is adversely affected from the word go. I concur with this. I have rejected literally tens of teacher applications for jobs because their English was too poor to allow me to allow them to be in the presence of children as their teacher. I still struggle with the fact that many teachers’ handwriting and spelling is not good enough for them to model either for children. The article goes on:

The hard fact is that job applications littered with grammatical and spelling errors are routinely thrown aside and young hearts broken without even understanding why. The working world, despite its own tendency to jargon, places high value on good English.  So should educators. It is callous and careless not to pull students up for mistakes, or indulge in far too much “positive marking”. Teachers should make it clear, if necessary at the expense of personal popularity, that you need to master formal grown-up language and its subtleties.

When it comes to GCSEs, then this becomes worse, as their is, after GCSE English, NO opportunity for teachers to correct their English unless they are doing an A Level in the subject (and even then….). As a primary teacher I am frequently horrified that all the work we have done on handwriting, spelling and grammar (and goodness knows, there is not enough of that in any primary school), is ignored in Year 7, and children allowed to produce work whose presentation is dire.

The root problem is that as English speakers in the UK, we do not respect or love our language. There is no real culture of talking about, sharing ideas on or correcting our spoken and written language, as there is, for instance, in the smoke-filled cafes of Beirut or Amman, where Arabic as a language (especially of the Levantine variety) is loved, admired and respected. Iin the UK, we see it as a tool to be used, rather than as an inheritance to be cherished. You can spot those who love and celebrate English as a language simply by listening to them or reading their work. And those who don’t. Even if they are teachers.


About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

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