When celebrities comment on schools
Of all the middle class creatives currently making ill informed criticisms of Gove’s reforms, Michael Morpurgo has got my blood boiling the most. Writers such as Morpurgo do a great service in encouraging schoolchildren to read. However, it is frustrating to hear such figures stray into debates over classroom practice about which they do not know nearly enough to comment.
Whilst presenting a young writers’ prize this week, Morpurgo attacked Gove’s aim to restore “academic rigour” to the teaching of English. He claimed, “It is really important that focusing on things such as spelling, punctuation, grammar and handwriting doesn’t inhibit the creative flow.” He ended with a heartbreaking account of his own education, where the focus on “testing” gave him a fear of getting things wrong which put him off writing for years. Before I became a teacher, I may have found such a critique of academic rigour convincing. I now know that these ideas are a roadmap to disaster.
Morpurgo’s comments are not unusual, they represent the mainstream view on how to teach English composition in British schools. To quote a 2005 teacher training textbook:
“…generally the trend [in teaching English] has been to promote experimentation and creativity, and to focus less on grammar… There is a school of thought which still believes that pupils do not need to be taught the grammar of their mother tongue because grammar is absorbed through talking and reading, and that the study of grammar actually inhibits creativity.”
As a secondary school history teacher, I encounter the horrendous results of this view on a daily basis. After reading Morpurgo’s comments yesterday morning, I began marking some year nine assessments on the slave trade. Below is an extract from one pupil’s work. It demonstrates precisely what happens when schools sacrifice rigour for creativity.
This thirteen-year-old pupil is bright, articulate, and in a top set. He should, by rights, do very well at school. However, he has had the misfortune of being sent to a primary school that is wedded to the Morpurgo doctrine of creativity before rigour. He does not use capitals, he does not write in sentences, and his spelling is bad. As a result, this perfectly intelligent pupil probably won’t take any A-levels, he certainly won’t go to university, and he will be effectively barred from any job that requires even a modest level of literacy. At schools such as the one where I teach, this pupil’s writing level is the norm, not the exception.
Morpurgo ended his comments with a clever bit of wordplay, “Mr Gove calls it ‘rigour’, I call it ‘rigor mortis’.” Ironically, Morpurgo’s use of a Latin phrase betrays the rigour of his own education. I would confidently bet that he would not find a single pupil in the (deeply non-rigorous) school where I teach who could tell you what “rigor mortis” means. What Mr Gove calls “rigour” is in fact a necessary corrective to decades of “progressive” teaching that has resulted in intelligent thirteen-year-olds writing like five-year-olds. Gove’s emphasis on phonics is already bearing fruit: the one primary school in our catchment area which uses the method turns out pupils with a considerably higher level of literacy than any of the others.
The middle-class creatives who so enthusiastically criticise Mr Gove suffer from a troubling myopia, which leads them to believe the greatest calling in any child’s life is to become a middle-class creative. I would like to ask Mr Morpurgo what is the greater tragedy for my year nine pupil: that he is taught spelling, punctuation, grammar and handwriting and perhaps denied a decent career as a children’s writer. Or, that he is not taught spelling, punctuation, grammar and handwriting and denied any decent career whatsoever.