Recently I would say I have been suffering from pretty poor mental health. Feeling stressed and a bit overwhelmed by how much I’m not able to do in the time there is, and upset at how much better a job I wish I was doing. Which, dear reader, has made me somewhat reflective. And this is something which has stared back at me: I don’t think that teaching English should be stressful. It’s about stories. About love conquering all. Good overcoming evil. All that stuff. Good, fun, positive stuff. I love it! Why is it stressful? Do you know what I think the problem might be? I think it might be because English is a CORE subject.
Being a core subject, for anyone unfortunate enough to have to teach anything else, is not simply an excuse to lord it through the corridors, pushing less important subject teachers out of the way in your haste to get to the next intervention class (pupils unilaterally removed from [insert any other subject here]), it’s also an invitation to take on the full burden of the school’s performance, and to squeeze all of the joy you once had in your subject out onto the educational chopping board and have it pummelled with a data rolling pin. But, why does English have this status? Why does this status exist at all?
Presumably, the core subjects are considered core because somebody decided that they are more important than the other subjects. More relevant somehow to the betterment of society. Which, honestly, at least in the case of English anyway, is just not true as far as I can see. A good proportion of teaching English is about discussing and (over-)analysing bits of writing, and speculating about why a writer might have chosen this or that particular word. Which I obviously think is awesome, but I’m not sure it is more important, or intrinsically more relevant, than knowing how to cook a decent meal or why William was a Conqueror. What is more important than all that, and vastly more relevant, is being able to read and write confidently. However, as I’vewritten before, teaching English is not teaching reading. The conflation of English with literacy is a fallacy which is limiting our potential to successfully teach both, and which is failing too many of the children in our schools. English teachers don’t have time to teach children how to read properly: we’re too busy planning our twice-weekly, two-hour, 6am Year 7 Christmas Carol quotation memorisation booster sessions (one hour for non-PP pupils). Everything is so focused on how well they do in their exams, that there’s no time for love conquering all; it’s all about whether you can get them to memorise another 4 synonyms for shows before the next practice paper steam-rollers in.
Ensuring that children leave secondary school able to confidently read and write is a fundamental moral obligation which everybody involved in education needs to support, but, at the moment, the system just isn’t set up to ensure that it happens for everyone. For too many (i.e. more than zero) children, English lessons (and, most likely, all their other lessons as well, but I’m not in those) are boring and hard because it’s almost impossible to take part in what’s happening because they don’t really understand what it is they’re reading. There needs to be an accepted literacy benchmark, which schools need to ensure pupils reach before they leave. Really, it should be the only (academic) thing schools are judged upon. And “Literacy”, as a stand-alone subject, should be compulsory for everyone, until they meet that benchmark. For some people, that might be when they’re in Year 7; for others, that might be the last thing they achieve before they leave school: it doesn’t matter, as long as they do achieve it, and they receive the support they need to make sure they achieve it. Which, at the moment, lots of children do not. The ones who can’t read well are being made to learn enough about how Shakespeare uses the weather (“Who can remember what it’s called? Path….? Anyone….?”) to get through their exam, and then being sent off into a world they can’t hope to fully understand, although they might (maybe) smile ruefully to themselves as they walk miserably down the street in the rain. “How Shakespearean!” they’ll chuckle to themselves.
If we did end up with a dedicated literacy curriculum, that would mean English could become like other subjects. We could maybe take ourselves a bit less seriously. We could try to teach children in Key Stage 3 so they actually liked our subject, so they’d choose it as an option. We could maybe teach them some stuff that wasn’t on an exam specification somewhere. And, maybe, it wouldn’t be so stressful for everyone. Unless it’s just me...?