A+ A A-

What Do They Know of English


In the United Kingdom, writes Philip Hensher in "The Spectator", it was recently announced that Shakespeare is to be dropped in his entirety from the high school English curriculum. That leaves the study of a single novel as the sole compulsory element left in the curriculum. What an education along these lines will produce was brought home to me recently in sobering fashion, writes Hensher.


In a way, anyone who thinks the lower classes have been getting above themselves lately ought to raise a glass to the educational authorities in this country. Even if you aren't given to conspiracy theories, it is hard to suppress the thought that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the government's advisory board on state education, is pursuing a long-term class war of devilish ingenuity. Let's not educate them; let's keep them ignorant; let's discourage them from ever reading a book; and we, the leisured rich, will face a future of lolling in our red-velvet dressing-gowns, fed Turkish Delight by a whole generation of illiterate, epsilon-minus semi-morons.

The latest proposal from the QCA is a quite astonishing downgrading of the English GCSE. As reported in the Daily Telegraph, Shakespeare is to be dropped in his entirety. There is no longer to be a requirement to read two works by classic novelists and four poets from a list of 28. Two lists of post-1914 novelists and poets are to be removed. The sole compulsory element is the study of a single novel.

In place of this, the QCA wishes to impose 'media studies', the examination of 'the moving image' and 'information reading', which means, apparently, Web pages and email. Watching Titanic and learning how to surf the Net are activities that have their place, of course, but it is difficult to see how they are equivalent in any way to studying and analysing Jude the Obscure. The Daily Telegraph said that these proposals will 'outrage traditionalists'. Rubbish. They ought to outrage everyone.

What an education along these lines will produce was brought home to me recently in sobering fashion. The novelist Lynne Truss and I were invited by the Arvon Foundation to lead a workshop in creative writing and journalism at its centre in the West Country. The Arvon Foundation is a deeply admirable organisation, which enables would-be creative writers to study and discuss their work with professionals on a week's residential course. This course was not for adults, but for a sixth-form college from east London. The students were mostly working towards A-levels, and were interested in journalism.

They arrived on Monday night, and Lynne and I set a brief exercise for the following morning: a couple of paragraphs that would serve to introduce a travel piece. The work duly arrived; Lynne and I looked at it, took a deep breath, and prepared to throw away our prepared schedule. We had thought of commissioning articles, picking published pieces apart in class, and getting the students to edit each other's work. Forget it. Their education just hadn't prepared them for it.

These were people who were mostly studying for A-levels in media studies, and, to be brutal, the standard of literacy in their written work was roughly what I would have expected to find 25 years ago in the work of one of the less able classes of nine-year-olds in an inner-city state school. Few, if any of them, knew whether to write 'would of' or 'would have'; all wrote 'you're coat' and 'your an idiot' indiscriminately; the possessive apostrophe was a matter of the utmost mystery. They had never been taught and they did their best, bravely believing that a career in journalism was a perfectly reasonable ambition for them.

Of course, they were struggling against difficulties: none of them, it was clear, came from a bookish background, or one where education was valued, except in the most general terms. Some of the problems that surfaced could be put down to social factors, which education alone can't change. It was frightening how routinely they described almost any experience as 'boring', as if they were waiting for the world to come and entertain them. The boys found any sign that one of them might be working not just infra dig, but ludicrous and a favourite word of abuse 'gay'.

But these difficulties can be overstated. It was noticeable, for instance, that many of the kids in the group who did not have English as a first language made fewer elementary mistakes. And, as the week went on, it became more and more apparent that they were not stupid; it was almost moving to see how quickly their work improved once a pair of brutes like me and Lynne started demanding work and picking their grammar to bits. The fault was quite simply in their education, which had never asked anything of them.

And I thank God I was born when I was, just in time. My education was no more privileged than theirs: I went to a comprehensive school in Sheffield. But, in studying for A-levels, I was made to read Madame Bovary and L'Avare in French, taught how to harmonise a Bach chorale, and stuffed with Shakespeare until it came out of my ears. Incomprehensibly, that education was supplied by a council led by Mr David Blunkett, who, as Secretary of State for Education and Employment, now presides over an unutterably degraded system. It was extraordinary, therefore, this week to see the Prime Minister, with the full support of Blunkett, denouncing exactly the sort of 'bog-standard comprehensives', which from my experience were so excellent, and replacing them with what can only be an inferior system of commerce-driven selection. Someone like me who speaks four European languages without thinking about it and this is the crucial point is now able to acquire more without juvenile drilling will never be produced by the present pathetically unambitious idea of public examination. To pretend that a qualification in media studies which teaches you how to send an email but not when to write 'your' and when 'you're' is in any way equivalent to the education I had is to revive the class war by other means.

Education 20 years ago, as supplied by the state, constituted a body of knowledge and expertise that was of use not just in itself, but that fitted the school-leaver to go on learning. For instance, foreign-language teaching was firmly directed towards the understanding of grammatical structure, and not just towards the acquisition of odd phrases and vocabulary. The understanding of grammatical form is not just the easiest way to acquire a foreign language in adulthood; it is also the surest way to write English correctly. A child who understands the form the genitive takes in French and in German will not write 'you're' when he means 'your'. My observation that a child who spoke Bengali or Xhosa at home having some point of grammatical comparison is somewhat less likely to make errors in written English, bears out an instinctive sense of the importance of foreign-language teaching in general standards of literacy. Not all of us are lucky enough to have parents whose first language is Urdu and, when I was a child, that absence was substantially addressed by the systematic teaching of European languages.

That reliable support, by which correctness in one's own language may be significantly aided, has largely been removed. Even when foreign languages are taught, the study of grammar has been replaced by the idea of successful communication, however incorrect that may be in native terms. If the idea is conveyed, whether in French or German or English, then that is good enough for our current educators and examiners. And, evidently, the result is not just that young people are quite unable to speak or write in any other way than the pristine, unattended chaos of their habitual speech, but also that their schooling has not equipped them, once they leave formal education, to go on learning.

No one who leaves education now will find themselves with the scaffolding of understanding which would enable them to acquire another language with less effort; not many, it seems, are able to write their own language in any manner other than warbling their native woodnotes wild. Without that knowledge, which once was systematic and not anecdotal, which was abstract and not what our educators so fatuously call 'practical', children are crippled. An education that drills children in the structure of a language will produce adults who are able to teach themselves how to send emails in an hour, or to speak an unfamiliar language in three months. One that aims only to teach them to learn how to surf the Web is going to produce an ignorant underclass.

Teaching these poor children, we were absolutely determined that we were not going to drop one element of the prepared plan. We were going to force them to write a book review. Just how onerous a task this would be became apparent when I announced this and more than half the group said that they had never read a book from beginning to end. These were A-level students, remember. They weren't exaggerating; for many of them, it proved quite impossible to read a novel of fewer than 200 pages in four days: on Thursday I came across one poor boy close to tears of frustration over page 15 of White Fang.

As we were leaving, one of the girls came up to me spontaneously and said, 'From now on I'm going to read books ...and cook ...and everything ...and....' Her eyes were dancing with possibilities no one had ever shown her until now. Dear Faith, I hope you do; you deserve nothing less. But I felt like crying at the sheer criminal waste, the fraud which passes for an education now.



Philip Hensher. "What Do They Know of English." The Spectator, (United Kingdom) 17 February, 2001.

Reprinted with permission of The Spectator and Philip Hensher.

The Author

Philip Hensher's most recent book is The Bedroom Of The Mister's Wife. His new novel, The Mulberry Empire, will be published in 2002.

Copyright © 2001 The Spectator
back to top