Testing times for literacy

Declining standards cannot be reversed in the classroom alone - we need to recreate a passion for words in society at large.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

National tests for pupils aged 11 and 14 should be scrapped and replaced with random tests in order to develop better reading and writing skills, says the UK think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). It calls for an end to the culture of testing that encourages teachers to drill children to pass the test, rather than learn for learning’s sake (1). Instead we need a system based on internal teacher assessments, argues IPPR. Such proposals follow those of Alan Johnson, the UK education secretary, who suggested that children be measured on individual progress rather than national targets.

The recognition that constant assessment narrows rather than expands pupils’ abilities has been a long time coming. But devising new types of tests merely tinkers with formats rather than addressing a deeper-rooted problem. Solutions to rising illiteracy will not come through the classroom alone.

For all New Labour’s hollow talk about its ‘education revolution’, it is becoming apparent that more students leave the education system with barely adequate levels of literacy. This isn’t just confined to 16-year-old school leavers. Apparently, more than half of Scotland’s universities have been forced to offer classes in basic punctuation, spelling and grammar for their students (2). A colleague of mine at one university has been placed in a rather incongruous position: running a journalism course populated with students who can’t write very well.

There is no doubt that a hefty chunk of the blame lies with current education practises. The emphasis on handouts rather than note-taking, the promiscuous allowance of ‘bullet points’ rather than learning sentence and paragraph structure, the breaking down of in-depth essay questions to bite-sized chunks in exams – all of these have contributed to the problem. Elsewhere, the ‘aims and outcomes’ framework found in vocational training is increasingly incorporated into academic teaching, too. Rather than expecting a student to present a cogent and fully sustained argument and evaluation on a set text or theory, we expect them to ‘tick off’ a list of ready-made criteria. Not only does this limit the room for original insight, it also reduces writing to being simply a means to a specified end.

It is this desire to transform fluid language into rigid ‘outcome friendly’ mechanics that partly explains why so many students have poor writing skills. The government’s obsession with quantifiable instrumentalism is simply not compatible with mastering the English language. The old phrase that ‘writing is never finished, it is simply abandoned’ sums up the gloriously open-ended character of writing.

Trying to get students to write has always been a struggle; but today’s instrumentalist ethos flatters and justifies instinctive laziness. Whenever I set my students an essay to do for homework, alongside innocent queries about writing style and format, they often want to know whether it goes towards the final A-level grade. This is hardly their fault. They’ve been nurtured in an education system that only promotes learning as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. As a result, students will only cultivate enough writing skills to see them through. Anything beyond that is considered to be a ‘waste of time’.

In classroom terms, it is perfectly possible to stop students from inserting box diagrams and sub-headings into essays. It’s far harder to instill a passion for writing well. Alongside calculating instrumentality, this is also down to the tyranny of relevance, whereby simply recounting your own ‘experience’ is somehow considered worthy of a pat on the back. Of course, a vast amount of literature has, and will continue to be, devoted to the everyday and mundane; but the crucial difference is to use literary devices to make language sound uncommon and strange. It’s precisely this estrangement that can make the everyday appear, in literature, unfamiliar and therefore illuminating. Emphasising the importance of ‘expressive creativity’ is hardly the same. It results in a style of writing that eschews literacy for the all-too-literal.

The decline of literacy standards in education and the rise of prosaic ‘relevance’ in cultural expressions are consequences of a profound shift in broader society. Cultural theorist Terry Eagleton argues that the development of literature from the eighteenth century onwards was vital in establishing a universal culture in order to bring the middle- and working-classes on to the elite’s side. As bourgeois ideologue Matthew Arnold put it: ‘They arrive, the masses, eager to enter into possession of the world, to gain a more vivid sense of their own life and activity…. If these classes cannot win their sympathy or give them their direction, society is in danger of falling into anarchy.’ (3)

The need to expand literacy to the masses was always double-edged and sometimes disapproved of. The inner human world of imagination, the ‘transcendental scope of the poetic mind’, as Eagleton puts it, is at odds with the instrumentalist ethos of the market. This is precisely why novel-reading and poetry-writing was widespread amongst the industrial working-classes – it provided a haven from the dehumanising process of alienated wage-labour. In Ben Hamper’s autobiography Rivethead, this former Ford assembly operative richly describes how he and his fellow workers in Detroit would find solace through writing and discussing poetry. In fact, so widespread were autodidactic leanings amongst Western workers that Evelyn Waugh complained in 1955 about ‘these grim young people coming off the assembly lines in their hundreds every year and finding employment as critics, even as poets and novelists’ (4).

Back then, at least Waugh had the grace to acknowledge that the masses engaged in such activities. For decades now, the political elites have insisted that English literature is beyond the ken of most people and needs to be made more relevant to ‘ordinary people’ and, increasingly, the ‘skills-based’ economy. Ironically, it is precisely this false projection of an imagined inarticulacy and the need to show ‘provable outcomes’ that is diminishing the value of English literature. I doubt whether a few internal tests drummed up in the staffroom are going to combat that.

Neil Davenport is a writer and lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

(1) The Times (London), 27 December 2006

(2) Students offered language lessons, BBC News, 27 September 2004

(3) Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory, (1983), Blackwell

(4) Quoted in Never Had It So Good, Dominic Sandbrook (2005), Abacus

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today