Michael Rosen has always been a man to appreciate and admire. As was his dad, Harold. His two-year stint as Children's Laureate has just come to an end, and to mark it he had an article in yesterday's EducationGuardian. As a poet and a writer he has a genius for spotting and summing up the essence of things, for showing us the little things that say such a lot about the state of the world, or humankind, or whatever.
For example, in this latest article he starts with this anecdote:
“Now here's one of the nice bits ... going round the classrooms and having a quick chat in each room ... open the door ... in ... this is a year 4 group ... and the teacher says that she's been working with one of my poems ... little heart-flip of pride ... yes, she says, the "quicks" have been making up poems of their own and the "slows" have been doing a wordsearch, using words from my poems. OMG! Quicks! Slows! I had no idea that poetry could be streamed! What do I say? I nod. I smile. I say nothing. I want to say something but I can't say anything because my mind is banging to the tune of 10 years' worth of government statements about "delivering the standards agenda" and "rolling out entitlement" . . . ”
Wonderful. Sums up the bloody sorry state of our Primary schools in one paragraph. He then describes meetings he's had with the likes of Jim Rose, Ed Balls and Jim Knight, and details their sheer incomprehension as to what schools should be doing and what the damn government's been doing that's wrong, bad and mad.
Jim Rose says to Michael, "We've got the alphabetical principle in place, now the next one to crack is how do we make books come alive?" For chrissake! “The alphabetical principle”! There's no such thing! What he means of course is that he believes Primary teachers have finally been battered into believing that “synthetic phonics” are the answer to overcoming slow progress in learning to read. Which is bollocks, of course, but Jim thinks he's fixed it, thanks to his rubbish report on the teaching of reading.
And “making books come alive”?
“I'm thinking, why is it a problem to work out "how to make books come alive". Teachers were doing this 20, 30, 40 years ago. There are shedloads of books on the subject. There are teams of advisers working out of local authorities or places like the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education who are training teachers to do this. There are hundreds of writers visiting schools doing this. He says he'll get back to me. He doesn't.”
He meets with Balls and Knight in the House of Commons:
To my left are several people who haven't been introduced, who are probably from "the department". We are talking about books. I say to the ministers that they've put in place a compulsory programme to teach children how to read, but there is no policy on reading books. They look at me blankly. Ed has half a mind elsewhere. The press pack outside want a bite of him. It's the Haringey child abuse scandal. I say that what's going on is discriminatory. Children who come from homes where books are being read get access to the kinds of abstract and complex ideas that you can only get hold of easily through exposure to extended prose. The rest are being fed worksheets.
Ed doesn't believe me.
"What do you want from us?" he says. "A directive asking every local authority and every school to devise its own policy on the reading of books. I've got a 20-point outline that you could send out as a guideline for people to adapt." "Send it to me," says Jim. "I have already," I say. "Send it to me again," he says . . ."
Moving on from stupid politicians who are too full of themselves to take any notice of what much cleverer and wiser people have to tell them, Michael writes with great affection and pride about his father, who worked as a teacher at Walworth Comprehensive and later became Professor of Education at the Institute of Education. This is from Wikipedia:
Harold Rosen (25 June 1919 - 31 July 2008) was an influential educationalist, particularly in regard to the teaching of English, a socialist thinker and a political activist, born in the USA but active mainly in the UK. He was a Communist activist in the 1930's; after World war II, he became an English teacher and later a teacher trainer; he became a major figure on the New Left after leaving the Communist Party in 1957; and he played an important part in debates and developments in the fields of language teaching and Primary education, particularly in the 1960's and 1970's.
"My father dies. He was 89. There seem to be so many layers to his life. To me and my brother he was the bloke on camping holidays singing French folk songs, telling rude jokes, or back home getting in a state about our homework not being done. But as the letters and obituaries are written, we are reminded of him as schoolteacher, as teacher-trainer, as storyteller, as "animator" of study groups.
An issue of the English teachers' journal Changing English appears that is entirely devoted to him and his work. Simon, one of his colleagues at Walworth comprehensive school in south London, has unearthed the English syllabus that my father helped to devise in 1958. I read: "Whatever language the pupils possess, it is this which must be built on rather than driven underground. However narrow the experience of our pupils may be (and it is often wider than we think), it is this experience alone which has given their language meaning. The starting point for English work must be the ability to handle effectively their own experience. Oral work, written work and the discussion of literature must create an atmosphere in which the pupils become confident of the full acceptability of the material of their own experience. Only in this way can they advance to the next stage."
I am overcome with feelings of admiration, sadness, regret and anger. I start to scribble a letter to the editor of Changing English, Jane Miller. How did the Thatcher and Blair governments succeed so quickly to wipe out years of such thought, theory and practice? Did my father, my mother and everyone else struggling to figure out how to give every single child the right to speak, write and read not lay out these kinds of theories clearly enough?"
No doubt Michael's asking a rhetorical question and in reality he's familiar with the Shock Doctrine, and with the neo-conservative idea that in order to defeat progressives and socialists it's important that right-wing prime ministers and presidents act with great speed and are ruthless in overturning the ideas of their opponents, claiming that there's a national crisis of some sort, an emergency, a need to fix a massive problem or to remedy a set of failures attributed to their opponents. Of course Harold Rosen and his progressive peers laid out their theories and their methodology, which they'd developed from actual experience of working in tough inner-city areas, with enormous clarity and cogency. Reactionaries like Balls and Knight don't need to engage with those ideas – as head honchos they just feel the need to act on their own elitist instincts, their pathetically limited knowledge, and their ludicrous assumptions about methodology and the learning process.
Last year Michael wrote an article about SATs:
Sats: literally failing
The government is still wedded to Sats. Why, when the tests emphasise rote learning and cramp imaginations?
So, the government comes face-to-face with a failure. Someone better than me at basic numeracy might like to tot up the money spent on Sats, the various "strategies" and specific "hours", and Ofsted teams, along with the cost of schools closed and re-opened under new management. It's clear that Andrew Adonis is still wedded to the crumbling edifice of Sats, even though there is no evidence to suggest that the tests "lever up standards" as is claimed.
We know now that teachers teach to the tests. Every parent of a Sats-age child knows that the Sats year begins with your child's teacher announcing, "This is the year of the Sats", and sure enough, the lesson plans and homework soon come home. These are, in essence, mini-Sats full of the same kind of questions. In other words, the response to literature across the whole year (and indeed the whole school) is reduced to firing back answers on the facts in extracts in books, and reproducing the "sequence of events" as they put it. Literature is being shrunk into literacy.
The tragic fact is that [an] immensely potent way of giving children a reason to read and write has been turned into a series of dull, repeated exercises and tests, often conducted on books that are never read in their entirety – and all in the name of "delivering literacy". I suggest that whatever process of teaching children how to read is in place, this process on its own will never solve the problem of proving to children that reading is a worthwhile and interesting activity. In other words, any child might quite legitimately ask him- or herself, "why should I bother with this stuff?"
Ofsted inspects schools for literacy but not for whether children read often, freely and widely.
Only when all children are in a book-loving environment will they achieve literacy, yes, but a lot more: a confidence in handling abstract ideas, an understanding of a multiplicity of viewpoint and the complexity and diversity of human interaction that comes through reading widely and often. At the moment, the government is barking up the wrong tree. The regime of Sats, the literacy strategy and Ofsted will only carry on delivering failure.
I've just discovered, almost too late, an excellent comedy series on Radio 4 – The Secret World.