secondary english

Thoughts on Telling the story: the English education subject report

By Steve Willshaw, Secondary English Associate Consultant, NASBTT

The following document is not a summary of this report – several very good summaries have been written by others, including the English and Media Centre and NATE

Instead, it has been written to try to provide some historical context on key elements of the report for the benefit of new entrants to the profession.

English is a highly politicised subject. Debates over how to teach key aspects of the subject are often referred to as the reading wars. It is important to see this Ofsted report in the light of these wars, as the latest skirmish, if you will. My approach is to pick out three key quotations from the report and try to provide some insight into the context behind them.

“Few schools design or follow a curriculum to develop pupils’ spoken language”

Oracy is currently a hot topic. A new commission has just been appointed to investigate it and the Labour Party appear to be likely to place greater emphasis on this aspect of the English curriculum if they manage to win the coming election. In the past, oracy (a word coined as recently as the mid 1960s) was given much greater emphasis in English lessons. GCSE English involved completing three different spoken tasks that involved group, individual and drama-based activities. Additionally, a candidate could be assessed on an oral rather than written response to one of their set texts. All candidates gained at least 20% of their final English Language GCSE grade from their oral marks and in some cases, if schools took up the oral response option, it was considerably higher.

The problem was that these responses were deemed to be difficult to assess in a reliable way. The government’s/DFE’s/Ofsted’s suspicion was that teachers were inflating the marks to improve their department’s overall results and any method of quality assurance would be unfeasibly expensive. This ignores the fact that teachers had been meeting together in local consortia for decades, listening to pupils speak, hold discussions and act out role plays before giving them thoughtful constructive feedback. The pupils went home proud that they had represented their school and the teachers left with new ideas about how to develop their oracy work and with a strengthened network of English teacher colleagues in local schools.

So, emphasising oracy now feels, to older English teachers, sadly ironic. Strong practice that existed in the past but was then dismantled for ideological reasons is now being replaced. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of school pupils have passed through schools and have not benefitted from the confidence boost that this type of speaking and listening provision used to provide.

“Teachers over-use reading comprehension questions. This does not build pupils’ reading fluency”

Since the initial implementation of a National Curriculum in England in 1989 there has been a gradual move towards the centralisation of English teaching. In the 1980s individual teachers within the same department generally all did their own thing, following their own, sometimes quite idiosyncratic curriculums. The results were patchy – you could be lucky and have an inspirational teacher, but nothing was guaranteed. During the 1990s departments began to develop common teaching plans and team teaching and collegiate approaches became much more common. From 1992 schools were subject to inspection by Ofsted and lists of prescribed authors from which teachers could select were introduced. As Lorna Smith explains in her excellent piece on The English Curriculum in Context (Smith 2022) the various iterations of the National Curriculum between 1999 and 2004 tended to emphasise “formality and employability”. More recently, due to the pandemic we have had the most extreme version of this centralisation in the form of the schemes of learning produced by Oak Academy.

This combination of greater prescription and increased accountability has had the inevitable consequence of making English department’s more risk averse. You will now find English curriculum models which emphasise knowledge of the literary canon over personal development or reading for pleasure. And you will also come across teachers using GCSE-lite activities in KS3 to ensure that their pupils are prepared for the examinations that are still several years away. This is rather like trying to tile your roof before you have put down proper foundations as the engagement with literature, the understanding of different ways of interpreting texts and the sheer thrill of creativity that KS3 should be establishing are not built by drilling pupils in rigid approaches to texts. This is not to criticise English teachers – their response to the pressures they have been put under is logical if reductive. But it does seem rich for the organisation responsible for the accountability scenario that has given rise to this situation to be so critical of the way teachers have responded.

“It is rare for schools to take a systematic approach to professional development”

The centralisation process described above has had the effect of de-skilling and de-professionalising English teachers. As the report correctly points out, most CPD now is directly organised by the Awarding bodies and much of this is excellent. However, it is, by its nature, focussed on examinations which are now considerably narrower in what they demand of pupils than they were. This results in training which is inevitably focussed but not explorative and philosophical in the way that would truly benefit less experienced teachers as they strive to build what Hargreaves and Fullan call their “professional capital” (Hargreaves and Fullan 2012). Brilliant organisations, such as NATE and the English and Media Centre put on excellent training courses but there is a fragmentation within the subject that does not seem to be the case in subjects such as history and geography where the respective subject associations have wider membership bases and consequently greater influence. It is noticeable that the recent Ofsted report on geography was met with much more support from the geography teaching profession than is the case here. English teachers have long made themselves unpopular in staffrooms by suggesting that their subject is unique but there is a genuine and well-founded feeling that the Ofsted English Research Review, on which this report is based, is flawed. It tries to apply pedagogies from other areas to English where they simply do not fit. The issues with this report, some of which I have tried to contextualise here and others which are outlined in the two summaries linked above, are the result. It is important that, as new entrants into the profession, you understand this situation so you can make more informed decisions about what and how you teach this subject now and as you go on to take responsibility for running departments in the future.

Hargreaves,A and Fullan M (2012) Professional Capital: transforming teaching in every school. Routledge, Abingdon

Smith, L. (2022) The English Curriculum in Context in A Practical Guide to Teaching English in the Secondary School eds Watson, A. and Newman, R. Routledge, Abingdon.


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