From a linguistic point of view, there are good reasons to focus on the heated debate over the teaching of English in the National Curriculum in the 1980s and early 1990s. As far as the media, the Conservative government of the time and certain sections of society were concerned, the declared goal of the National Curriculum with respect to the teaching of English was a return to the rote learning of prescriptive grammar rules and stylistic prescriptions, and a rejection of the creative, communicative learning and understanding of language as a multiplicity of dialectal varieties and different registers. In section 5 we shall take a closer look at Honey’s book Language Is Power: The Story of Standard English and Its Enemies (1997), in which he promotes the equation of standard English with the language of the educated and devalues the university as an educational institution.

The idea of comprehensive schools at the secondary level of education in England and Wales was proposed by the post-World War II Labour government under Prime Minister Clement Attlee as an antidote to the social segregation of schoolchildren that took place as a result of the so-called 11 + exam, in which those who passed had a right to a place at a grammar school and those who did not were constrained to attend so-called secondary modern schools and technical schools. It was also the avowed aim of the postwar Labour government eventually to abolish the institution of the fee-paying public schools. In the postwar era this project became a highly politicised, controversial and hotly debated issue in the field of state education. Pedagogical arguments for the introduction of comprehensive education were overshadowed by the political arguments of the opposition, who predicted that it would lead to a dangerous levelling and lowering of educational standards and that it was a denial of parents’ rights to choose the kind of school their children attended.[1]

The Attlee government, however, did not have time to implement this educational project before it was voted out of office in 1951 by Winston Churchill’s Conservatives. During the following 13 years of Conservative government, a few comprehensive schools were introduced by local authorities, particularly in rural areas where it was more economic to concentrate schoolchildren at different levels of achievement in one rather than several schools, and in urban areas controlled by the Labour Party. In the years after 1964, following the victory of the Labour Party under Harold Wilson, local authorities were instructed to draw up plans as to how they intended to introduce comprehensive education. Most of the secondary modern schools were transformed into lower schools catering to all pupils from age 11 to age 16, and the old grammar schools were transformed into upper schools (or sixth-form colleges) catering for pupils who wanted to continue their education to higher levels. In fact, however, only the high achievers were accepted into upper schools, which effectively continued the old system of social segregation. By the time of the first Thatcher government in 1979, this process, with certain exceptions, had been largely completed, despite the short interregnum of the Conservative government under Edward Heath from 1970 to 1974.

The shift towards comprehensive education coincided, not totally by accident, with a second pedagogical debate in the school system with regard to the teaching of English. Towards the end of the 1950s opposition was increasingly raised in pedagogical circles against the rote learning of prescriptive grammar in English.[2] A number of research studies in the early 1970s (e.g. Doughty, Pearce & Thornton 1971; Tough 1976) had shown that there was no correlation between the prescriptive teaching of grammar and the acquisition of communicatively adequate oral skills and correctness in writing standard English. Pupils who had not set their sights on higher academic levels of education turned away from the study of standard English instead of considering it as an added medium through which to express themselves and to discover the world around them. More creativity and flexibility in teaching English were called for, and the general goal of English teaching became not the mastery of grammar but the means of developing the pupil’s personality and communicative abilities. The grammatical parsing of sentences devoid of context, the correct representation in written form of what was spoken (i.e. dictation), the training of correct spelling, and the writing out of stylistic rules to avoid what were generally referred to as “incorrect”, “ungrammatical” expressions were given up in favour of open discussion, forms of debate, creative writing, the study of other varieties of English and familiarity with different registers of English.

In the eyes of critics within and outside the education system in the early 1970s, this meant that one generation of schoolchildren in the period after 1964 had been educated with no formal training in grammar, spelling, style and the lexicon. By the time of the Thatcher government of the 1980s, two to three generations of schoolchildren had not been exposed to prescriptive ideals of correctness—to what were traditionally considered to be the components of a homogeneous standard language. It also meant that two to three generations of teachers had been trained without the necessary experience to teach these supposedly important aspects of language. As is usual in such general debates, the criticism completely ignored the fact that many of these teachers had found creative ways and means to direct pupils’ attention to grammar, spelling and style.

Conservative politicians in the Heath administration from 1970 to 1974 became convinced that the new approach towards the teaching of English was a thorn in the flesh of the whole education system, and no one more than the minister for education at the time, Margaret Thatcher. But the conversion of the old segregational forms of education into different types of comprehensive education had progressed too far to be reversed without a huge financial outlay on the part of the state. In addition, in 1974 the Heath government called an early general election at the end of a long miners’ strike that had crippled the supply of energy within Britain, and it was ousted by the Labour Party under Harold Wilson.[3] While still in power, however, the Heath government set up a committee under the chairmanship of Sir Alan Bullock to take a critical look at the state of English teaching and to present a report to the government. The Bullock Committee met from 1972 to 1974, but the report, titled A Language for Life, was not published till 1975 when Labour had returned to power. In addition, it contained no recommendations that the “old” form of teaching English should be reinstated, but endorsed the new policy.

The Conservative government that returned to power in 1979 with Margaret Thatcher as prime minister allowed itself enough time to prepare a new attempt to reform the school system in England and Wales. After Sir Keith Joseph had transferred from his cabinet position of secretary of state for industry in 1981 to take over the Ministry of Education, he developed the idea of a National Curriculum for England and Wales and discussed it in detail with Thatcher. During the period from 1974 to 1979, when the Conservatives were in opposition, Thatcher and Joseph had worked closely together on Conservative policies for the future, and it is quite conceivable that the idea for a National Curriculum was mooted during this time. However, no formal proposal to present a bill on education to Parliament was made during Thatcher’s first term in office. In 1986 Kenneth Baker took over the Ministry of Education, and during that year the Great Education Reform Bill (known as the Gerbil) was published. Throughout England and Wales education was split into four phases, called “key stages”, with an exam at the end of each phase on the subjects that were compulsory throughout the curriculum from age 5 to age 16: mathematics, science, English, technology, history, geography, art, music, and physical education. The exams were called standard assessment tasks (SATs), and pupils were examined at ages 7, 11, 14 and 16. The Education Reform Act became law in 1988.

  • [1] In reality, of course, the only people who had this option were those with money.
  • [2] Again not totally by accident, this revolution in the teaching of English coincided with the rise ofmodern linguistics at the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s.
  • [3] Wilson retired from office in 1976, when the premiership passed to the newly elected leader of theLabour Party, James Callaghan.
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