If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Illiterate Teachers

From Scotland, but I can't see it being much better in the rest of the UK:

A government commissioned report into teaching standards in Scotland has recommended trainee applicants undergo basic literacy and numeracy tests ...

... the BBC understands it suggests prospective teachers should face reading and writing tests when they apply for training places.

It comes amid concern that incompetent staff are entering the profession.
It goes on:

Lindsay Paterson, professor of educational policy at the University of Edinburgh, said that as things stood, teacher training courses were "simply not intellectually challenging enough".

He said: "We know from research evidence that the numeracy of trainee primary school teachers leaves a great deal to be desired.

"This has to be addressed rather urgently."

Indeed. And:

"At the moment that is not being done adequately or systematically. A lot is left to chance and is left to the education that these students themselves got at school.

"That's not satisfactory."
That's a significant statement. Again: "A lot is left to chance and is left to the education that these students themselves got at school. That's not satisfactory."

No-one (except those with a vested interest) seriously thinks that educational standards have risen in the last 15 years. Young people, even 'graduates', coming into the world of work have embarrassingly low levels of literacy - by which I mean the ability to express themselves in line with the usual conventions of spelling and grammar. As an ex-teacher, I sit and read some of the things that my company sends out to customers or potential customers, and I cringe at some of the basic errors that I see. And if you point this out, two things become clear: one, that they can't see anything wrong with it; and two, they don't see it as a problem. And these are not technical staff - these are bright young people with degrees in Marketing and the like. The cream of the crop.

Of course, if we stop teaching this stuff, it is only a matter of time before this trickles down to the next generation of educators. Fifteen years ago, the kids weren't being taught the basics. Now, those kids are the teachers, and they can't teach the basics, even if they wanted to. They simply don't have the knowledge or skills. Where this will end is anyone's guess.

I can't honestly blame 13 years of Labour government for this. The rot started many years ago. I started in secondary school (a Northern boys' grammar, with pretentions to great tradition) in the mid-60s, and I was in the year where they decided to abandon the teaching of grammar and concentrate on the creative side. What I know of grammar, therefore, I have learned from the study of foreign languages and a spot of Latin. When I was a teacher myself, I was often concerned by the lack of accurate English from people in my own (English) department. Some were sticklers for correctness; but many weren't all that bothered. And any criticism I, as head of department, made was held to be close to heresy by the local authority advisers.

So now we are going to have to test prospective teachers to see if they can read, write and add up well enough to be let loose on 7-year-olds. Where will this end? The one real chance of putting it right - an intensive course in basic English within the teacher training establishments - has been lost because the role of the training colleges has been downgraded in favour of the trendier (and cheaper) method of mentoring within schools: getting the existing teachers to train up the new ones.

It can't end well.


  1. left to the education that these students themselves got at school

    Arrrggghhh!!!!! From a "professor of educational policy", no less. Lindsay, the students "received" an education, they didn't "get" one. ;-)

    What I know of grammar, therefore, I have learned from the study of foreign languages and a spot of Latin.

    Same here. Best reason for teaching Latin there is - that a smidgen of English might seep in.

  2. A revelation: I took a PGCE but did not finish the course. The teachers on the course were indeed illiterate and obsessed with political correctness. I personally never had a lesson that remotely had anything to do with pedagogy.

  3. I remember being taught in 1970s Junior School how to strip down and reassemble a sentence like a machine gun. It was rather like Winston Churchill's experience of being taught the mechanics of English . Breaking rules is what distinguishes geniuses in any sphere; not knowing the rules is the burden of dunces. The excellent English teaching in Junior School cushioned me against creativity at all costs of English teachers in Senior School. Latin, French and writing essays helped me as well.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. I did a PGCE in 1975-76, and the level of lunacy was high even then. We had to refer to the pupils as 'kids' so that we didn't appear to be talking down to them, and our written assignments were worthy of The History Man. I had a piece to write on setting, which I analysed as an imperfect but effective way of maximising limited teacher time. I was given it back unmarked, with the comment that I wouldn't get anywhere with ideas like that. The piece should have been entitled "Why setting is bad". I rewrote it along party lines and passed easily. The colleges were full of sociologist lefties, and they controlled the local authority advisers, and they in turn controlled the HoDs and teachers. You got nowhere unless you followed the correct line, and it was self-policing.

    Well-taught (and I appreciate that it was often anything but), grammar gives you a deep understanding of your own language, and enables you to express subtle thoughts and nuances, such as the difference between:

    It is raining: I will get my coat.
    It is raining; I will get my coat.
    It is raining. I will get my coat.

    And the strange thing is that the ones estimated as the least likely to take to grammar, i.e. the thickos, are the ones who gain the most when they are exposed to it - taught well, as before, of course.

  6. It started to fall apart when emphasis on teaching the "3 Rs" was abandoned in favour of more-trendy subjects.

    A personal view questions whether 'foreign' languages should be taught before 'English' has been mastered.

    A tough challenge considering this 'boast' lifted from a Google search:

    The curriculum is equally available to all pupils and should reflect:
    the nature of a pluralist society
    the benefits of cultural diversity
    the recognition of linguistic diversity and bilingualism
    the recognition of cultural and religious differences
    the elimination of any form of disadvantage resulting from cultural or religious differences
    the elimination of all forms of racial prejudice and discrimination

    Showing my age, my school's curriculum comprised English, Maths, History, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, PE, Music & (I believe the compulsory) RI.

  7. Good find. But: "the benefits of cultural diversity"? So loaded, and so inescapable.


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