PLANNING THE REINTRODUCTION OF GRAMMAR INTO THE NATIONAL CURRICULUM

Three working groups were then set up by Secretary of State for Education Baker to cover the three core subjects: English, mathematics and science. The working group for English, the Committee of Inquiry into the Teaching of the English Language, was chaired by mathematician Sir John Kingman, vice chancellor of the University of Bristol. The mandate defined by the Department of Education and Science was to report on the teaching of English in England and Wales and to suggest a model of English that would be of use for the second working group chaired by Brian Cox, who was then professor of English at the University of Manchester and who had also been a member of the Kingman Committee. The mandate of this working group was “to prepare proposals for English in the National Curriculum” from age 5 to age 16 (Cox 1991: 4), and it was asked to build on the Kingman Report.

The Kingman Report was submitted on 17 March and published on 29 April 1988. It did not meet with the approval of the government, and the prime minister seriously considered rejecting it because it not only failed to recommend a return to formal prescriptive grammar teaching as this had been practised up to the end of the 1950s but also suggested that such a move might hamper what the panel saw as the real goal of a national curriculum in English: the ability to communicate adequately in the spoken and written word.[1] Brian Cox’s working group was established on the day of the publication of the Kingman Report. The seminal publication on the activities of the working group and the difficulties that it encountered in having the final report published at all is Cox’s detailed critical analysis of all the issues involved (Cox on Cox: An English Curriculum for the 1990’s [1991]), which I will look at in some detail in this section.

Presumably because the Cox working group was set up the same day the Kingman Report was published and because press reports indicated that neither Thatcher nor Baker was happy that the report had not taken into account their conceptualisation of how grammar should be taught, Cox suggests that “the press presumed that I was to lead a Group which would make firm recommendations on grammar, in contrast to the equivocations of Kingman” (1991: 14). He reminds his readers that he had been a member of the Kingman Committee and that he fully endorsed the report it produced, which he considered to consist of “carefully balanced descriptions of the place of English in the curriculum” (14) rather than “equivocations”.

The group worked very quickly and submitted its final report in the middle of May 1989. Cox reports as follows on the way the report was received:

Mr Baker very much disliked the Report. He had wanted a short Report, with strong emphasis on grammar, spelling and punctuation, which would have been easy for parents to read. In contrast, as I have already said, I was most anxious to persuade the teaching profession to implement our recommendations with good will, and so I felt it essential to explain our assumptions in detail. I understand that Mrs Rumbold [minister of state at the Department of Education and Science] also found our Report distasteful. I was never asked to discuss the final Report with her or Mr Baker, so I cannot be sure about her reasons, but from her radio and television appearances it seemed she found repugnant our insistence that a child’s dialect is not inaccurate in its use of grammar and should be respected. (1991: 11)

A number of points are very revealing here. The “strong emphasis” that Mr Baker wanted on grammar, spelling and punctuation indicates that the standard written language was what he equated with standard English. Schoolchildren, in accordance with this conceptualisation of standard English, should be trained to accuracy and correctness rather than encouraged to explore standard English as an added variety of the language which children can and should use creatively and communicatively. The legitimate language myth can be seen here as the driving force behind the promotion of standard English, nota bene in its written form, as the only valid language in the state education system.

The first inference that one can draw from the ideological discourse of the standard language, as represented by Mr Baker and the rest of the Conservative cabinet, is that the language of those wielding political power is the only valid language, not just because it is the language of the education system but also because it is the language of the power holders themselves. This was precisely the attitude of governments during the 1790s and 1800s, against which Horne Tooke wrote the Diversions of Purley. The second inference is that, given the need to use standard language in oral communication in the school system, oral standard English is put on an equal footing with written standard English. The real issue, however, is how we define oral standard English, and the Conservative government’s stress on spelling, punctuation and “correct” grammar is evidence of a lack of awareness that this problem should be tackled at all.

The second point concerns those who are addressed by the report. Mr Baker assumes, somewhat unrealistically, that the target group is parents, whereas Cox and his committee, far more realistically, assume the target group to be teachers of English. Baker and Rumbold criticised the report for being too detailed, but the criticism itself and the identification of parents as the target group amount to not much more than a popular political statement. One senses here a lack of respect for the quality of English teachers on the

part of Baker and Rumbold. Obviously a government report is public property, but teachers are more directly implicated in carrying out the recommendations of a report than parents are ever likely to be. It is they, not the parents, who need to benefit more from careful detail concerning the reasoning behind the report.

The next point concerns the fact that Cox was never asked to discuss the report with Baker and Rumbold, and Cox himself speculates on the possible reasons for this. Apparently Rumbold, in her radio and television appearances, found the “insistence that a child’s dialect is not inaccurate in its use of grammar and should be respected” repugnant. The phrase that looms large here is “inaccurate in its use of grammar”, which indicates that it was precisely misguided ideas about what grammar is that lay at the heart of the matter. The legitimate language myth comes out in all its strength in Cox’s statement that a child’s dialect also has grammar and his implication that many of the reports in the popular print and television media imagine that only standard English can have a grammar. In Rumbold’s eyes (and no doubt in the eyes of the Conservative government in general), dialects are simply “inaccurate”; they are debasements of the legitimate standard language. The second inference that can be drawn is that university academics specialising in language are themselves misguided if they argue otherwise, or even if their data support the linguistic regularity of dialect. The step from accusing a speaker of bad grammar to accusing her of bad character and creating a causal link between the two is small, as is evident in countless academic discussions on the subject (e.g. Milroy & Milroy 1985; Milroy 2002; Crowley 2003; Cameron 1995). Cox (1991: 34) gives the example of Norman Tebbitt, a prominent member of Thatcher’s cabinet who was later to become chairman of the Conservative Party, saying on Radio 4 in 1985 that “the decline in the teaching of grammar had led directly to the rise in football hooliganism”.[2] Cox goes on to suggest that “correct grammar was seen by him as part of the structures of authority (such as respect for elders, for standards of cleanliness, for discipline in the schools) which in recent decades had fallen into decline” (34).

Cox suggests that three major interest groups were fighting for control over the National Curriculum English programme: journalists, politicians and professional teachers. I would add a fourth group consisting of academics concerned with language and teaching, who were treated by journalists and politicians with as much contempt as were the teachers. It is clear from what we have seen of the way in which both the Kingman Report and the Cox Report were received in the media and by the government that the journalists and politicians considered “grammar” to be associated somehow with the correct use of standard English, or even with the correct use of the written

language, and that any space given to dialects in the state school system was to be cut out in favour of the teaching of standard language. These are the discursive reflexes of an unshakable belief in the legitimate language myth, and the major bone of contention is labelled “grammar”.

How did the Cox group conceptualise “grammar”, and how did they envisage teachers dealing with the structure of English in the classroom? The central point that Cox makes in his chapter on “Grammar in the classroom” is the following (1991: 36): “When grammar fell into decline much of value was lost: a certain analytic competence, and with it the valuable ability to talk and write explicitly about linguistic patterns, relations and organisation.” But he follows this in the very next sentence with an important caveat: “The reintroduction of the teaching of grammar does not mean that teachers need to neglect the subjective, the creative, personal and expressive, for our ability to express ourselves depends on craft, and craft involves understanding of the forms of language.” Cox does not explicitly present a definition of grammar in Cox on Cox. But he distances himself from the idea that “English grammar is a fixed form, stable and unchanging, which obeys logical rules” (36), or that it should be equated with the “correct” structure of standard English only. Other varieties of English also have their grammars. This is particularly important when he mentions, among four points in which grammar can be of relevance in English language teaching, the fact that it should be able “to describe the considerable differences between written and spoken English” (37). The recommendations made in the report are that teachers should be familiar enough with terminology (which exists at other levels in the study of language) to invite pupils to comment actively on structure and to think about differences; that pupils should be given an opportunity to increase their awareness of the structures of language so that these can be used creatively; that the goal of any discussion of structure is to “create predictable and new meanings” (37); that there is always variety in language, which pupils should be encouraged to talk about; and that language is always in the process of changing.

These ideas are anathema to those who believe in such language myths as the superiority of English myth, the immutability myth, the perfect language myth, the pure language myth and, of course, the legitimate language myth, all

of which form the core of the discourse archive on language that was constructed in the nineteenth century and began breaking down only at the end of the 1950s.

In the early 1990s, the government asked Professor Ronald Carter of the University of Nottingham to design training materials for future teachers of English who had not received much formal language training. Carter and his colleague Michael McCarthy had argued that standard oral English was different in many respects from standard written English (Carter & McCarthy 1988; Carter 1990; see also Carter 1999). Expecting pupils to produce the same kind of English in debate, oral discussion and conversation as they would when writing thus constitutes a misrepresentation of standard English,

particularly when varieties of oral English show a wide range of structures (by individuals as well as groups) that vary according to the speaker, the person the speaker is addressing and the context of the communicative situation. On the basis of materials from the Cambridge and Nottingham Corpus of Discourse in English (CANCODE) compiled by Carter and McCarthy, Carter set about producing the LINC (Language in the National Curriculum) programme. However, the review of the programme at the end of 1991 revealed that the government was dissatisfied with the materials on the grounds that they were not formal enough, not decontextualised and, above all, that they did not always follow the “rules of standard English”. The government, therefore, decided what was “correct standard English” and not a trained applied linguist! There was a great deal of public dispute over the government’s decision not to allow the materials to be published. The government even placed a Crown copyright on them to prevent publication. The materials have since been used widely and successfully in teacher training courses.[3] [4] A report in the Daily Telegraph of 28 June 1992—which refers to the LINK programme rather than the LINC programme—shows very clearly where the fault lines ran between the government and the press, on the one hand, and teachers and academics, on the other:

And although the DES [Department of Education and Science] will not publish the document, it is being distributed to teacher training institutions, where its voodoo theories about the nature of language will appeal to the impressionable mind of the young woman with low A-levels in “soft” subjects who, statistically speaking, is the typical student in these establishments.

The tone of this short extract unmistakably shows the contempt with which journalists in the early 1990s held the teaching profession and academics. Theories about language such as those by Carter and McCarthy on the difference between written and oral standard English are dismissed as “voodoo theories” and those who are training to be English teachers at teacher training establishments are said to be “impressionable” and to have low A-level marks in “soft” subjects.11

From 1995 on, a series of books was published by Routledge on teaching at the level of the secondary school, and among them was Davison and Dowson’s collection of essays Learning to Teach English in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience. The editors deal in their own article in the collection with the recent history of the National Curriculum debate and the Kingman Report, and they quote the following somewhat damning statement by John Richmond in 1992. According to Richmond, the

Kingman Report had “failed to deliver the two simple linked nostrums expected of it: that the most important thing teachers need to know about language concerns the grammar of sentences; and that children come to command language by being taught the grammar of sentences in advance” (Richmond 1992: 17, quoted in Davison & Dowson 1998: 39).

The National Curriculum wars, then, were characterised by disparaging public statements made in the press and by a government that considered itself to know what correct standard English was. The truth of the matter was that the attempt to turn back the clock to the 1950s relied on committee after committee and work group after work group of academics, teachers and language experts who were expected to back up the government’s conceptualisation of standard English. That attempt failed despite vilification in the press, threats not to publish reports, the deliberate editing of the reports to bring them more in line with the government’s policies on language and even the prohibition on publishing. It failed because the discourse archive had begun to break down at least 20 years prior to the planning of the National Curriculum.

Politicians, however, had what they thought was one strong trump card up their sleeve in the linguist John Honey, whose 1997 book, titled Language Is Power: The Story of Standard English and Its Enemies, will be the focus of the following section.

  • [1] It is interesting to note that the quality presses were somewhat ambivalent in their appraisal of theKingman Report. The newspaper Today was fully in support of the proposal, the Guardian was cautiously insupport, the Observer took a middle-of-the-road position, and the Times avoided any evaluative commentary.The popular press, needless to say, came out in support of government criticism, producing statements thatwere calculated to fan the flames of dissension.
  • [2] A certain amount of caution is in order here, however. Has Cox simply transferred Tebbitt’s originalstatement into indirect speech, or has he interpreted the gist of Tebbitt’s statement as amounting to a causalconnection between bad grammar and hooliganism?
  • [3] The political and ideological debates surrounding the LINC materials can be found in Carter 1996and 1997.
  • [4] In addition, a distinct note of male chauvinism is injected into the opinion presented here by referring to trainee teachers specifically as young women.
 
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