‘Cambridge English’ and ‘London English’

Part of this shift in die emphasis of language study, and therefore English, arose much later, in the 1940s and 1950s, with the emergence of‘London English’. It is the case today, on paper at least, that we provide secondary education for all young people.This had not always been the case. Whilst education for all was an aspiration, and in spite of Arnold’s explorations as early as the mid-1800s of how formal education could be tailored to the benefits of the so-called ‘working class’, free secondary education for all did not become a reality in England until the late-1940s (see Gibbons 2013 for a detailed and insightful exploration of this period of English education). Thus, although English was introduced in 1904, free school provision was not widely available and most children did not attend school past the age of 12.This was extended to age 14 by an act passed in 1918 which also tried to remove fees from schools. However, the economic depression of the 1920s quickly followed, and this meant much of the act was not implemented in practice. As such,‘academic’ school subjects remained, in reality, the preserve of the privileged, and though grammar schools did offer free places to children from less advantaged backgrounds, these were few and far between.

The meaningful opening up of secondary education in the UK coincided relatively closely with the founding of the National Health Service (NHS) with the passing of the Butler Act, which expanded free secondary provision to all. As with the NHS, the national desire to honour the service of those who had lost their lives in the Second World War and create a fairer society for all is often identified as a key driver behind the Butler Act:

the secondary stage will be designed, not only to provide an academic training for a select few, but to give equivalent opportunities to all children over 11, of making the most of their natural aptitudes [...] schools available for an area shall not be deemed to be sufficient unless they are sufficient in number, character, and equipment to afford for all pupils opportunities for education offering such variety of instruction and training as may be desirable in view of their different ages, abilities and aptitudes.

(R.A. Butler speaking at the Second Reading of the Education Bill, 1944)

The Act drastically changed the landscape of schooling in Britain for three key reasons. It:

  • 1. Exploded the number of students with which schools suddenly had to cope.
  • 2. Dramatically transformed the demographic of young people who now required an education.
  • 3. Created huge demands for new teachers, compounded by the already substantial depletion of trained professionals, a devastating number of whom had lost their lives in the Second World War.

New teachers, new students, new times

With the implementation of the Butler Act, individual Local Education Authorities (LEAs) were allowed to determine how they would provide this free secondary education for all. Most opted for a three-tier system, with different types of schools for different ‘types’ of students - grammar schools, secondary moderns and technical colleges - resonances of which still exist in some parts of the country today, such as Kent. The notable exception to this was London, which decided to opt for a comprehensive school system instead.This is where ‘London English’ gets its name. London English developed from the grassroots (by teachers themselves) largely through the creation of an organisation called LATE: the London Association for the Teaching of English. Gibbons explains:

the old-style grammar school curriculum, devised for the relatively few so-called academic children, would simply not serve the many, and both established and newly trained English teachers lacked the tools with which to cope with the pupils now in front of them [...] This much was obvious to those who stood in front of the children in London, where comprehensive classrooms were a reality as early as the late 1940s

(Gibbons 2017: 16).

Thus, the earlier incarnation of the subject came to be known as ‘Cambridge English’. It was ‘heavily influenced by F.R. Leavis [... and] placed canonical English literature at the centre of the curriculum and emphasised correctness in the use of spoken and written language’ (Gibbons 2013: l).The new model developed in response to the challenge of a comprehensive school system following the passing of the Butler Act, by contrast,

grew from the work of academics and English teachers in the capital immediately after the war. Often referred to as a progressive model of English [... it] placed the child at the centre of the curriculum, valuing her experience and her language, and seeing the subject as linked to the development or growth of the individual within a social setting

(Gibbons 2013:1-2).

This sea change was borne out of a necessity to rapidly adapt to a vastly changed context for schools, teachers and students alike, but the persistence of‘Cambridge English’ in some of the academically selective grammar schools in other parts of the country has bred an unfortunate characterisation over time that the latter is more rigorous and challenging; as better rather than different. This in turn has fostered and underpinned many later disputes, with at times an unfortunate emphasis on which model is right or better, rather than a more layered discussion about the intended purposes of particular content and what its inclusion aims to achieve. Somewhere along the way, arguments about appropriate content, pedagogies and different practical teaching activities became muddied and blurred, and all too often the three are lumped together when in reality they are distinct strands of consideration.

Ball and colleagues argue that the Cambridge and London models have caused a ‘polarisation’ within English education (1990: 57). However, Gibbons suggests this is a misleading simplification because it ‘fails to take into account the relationship between the models and ignores the reality of the work of many English teachers’ (2013: 2). Reflecting on the current diet of English in both schools and especially universities, there is clear force to Gibbons’ point here, with elements of both Cambridge and London English being both present and valued in most institutions. Regardless of the reality, the idea of a strict choice between the two models remains a common conception and underpins many of the current major debates and conflicts around the subject.

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