Grammar Control Systems

“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.”
Oscar Wilde

We had an INSET about teaching grammar today. The DfES have decided to jiggle the curriculum about and, as part of this process, the teaching of grammar has been redefined. This means some aspects of grammar have become more or less important and the order that these grammatical elements should be taught has been tinkered with. The whole process is petty. The DfES reasserts its position over and above ordinary teachers while achieving nothing of real value.


As the meeting continues I realise that a teacher may agree with the state curriculum or not but it is only when a flaw is removed that it is OK to admit you thought it was ridiculous or unhelpful all along. For example I have felt for many years that the division of writing into six text-types (explanation, persuasion, recount, instructions, discussion and report) is reductionist and unhelpful, limiting a child’s idea of what writing is. Today we were told that the new ‘Program of Study’ places much less emphasis on these six text types and that there are now less rigid sets of descriptors for each of them. So now my own thoughts about this are closer to the official version. In a few years my own considerations may be heresy again.
We really did sit there today learning how the government has changed the term ‘embedded clause’ to ‘relative clause’. I don’t know what real linguists would make of this; my point is that it is completely normal for teachers in this country to subordinate their own insight and understanding to a higher authority. Real learning environments should be responding to the needs of the situation and should be in a state of creative upheaval and renewal at all times. How we teach grammar needs little if any of this kind of continual renewal and anyway if teachers can’t be trusted to do this themselves in their own settings should we really be letting them loose in the classroom? ‘Not only will we tell you what, how and when to teach’ says the DfES ‘we also reserve the right to arbitrarily change what, how and when to teach at any time’. The good teacher is a compliant one. Why would you openly question any of this? You’re only making trouble for yourself.
English grammar has barely changed for hundreds of years. But a new government feels the need to put its stamp on it. The most horrid example of this is their definition of a sentence. In our meeting this afternoon we were asked to define a sentence. All ten groups in the room came up with a variation of this: ‘a linguistic unit (a collection of words) that can stand alone to convey meaning using a verb’. Some included references to a subject and an object, some included references to capital letters and full stops. Now look at the DfES’ version:
‘All the words in a sentence are held together by purely grammatical links, rather than merely by links of cohesion. A sentence is defined by its grammar, but signalled by its punctuation.’
This definition might not easily illustrate what a sentence is (!) but it certainly illustrates the desire of the DfES to look cleverer than thou: a symptom of authority without natural authority. And there is no reference to ‘meaning’ in their definition.

Still, it’s not all bad. I spoke to an NQT colleague today (Newly Qualified Teacher) who is openly upset, even disgusted, by numerous aspects of how she must go about her job. Her values and priorities are squeezed out by the machine of state interference. But where did she get all these ideas about how children learn and what is best for children? At a Teacher Training College that’s where! Yes, those pesky academics are filling young trainee teacher’s minds with deep thought and proper reflection on what it means to be a teacher.
This job is for teachers not politicians.

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