Michael Rosen attacks new lessons in primary schools

The hour that narrows minds

THE GOVERNMENT is imposing a strictly timetabled prescriptive "literacy hour" on all primary schools, alongside a "numeracy hour". The literacy hour has been flagged up as the way to improve standards. Children's author and poet MICHAEL ROSEN explained to Socialist Worker why in fact the literacy hour is a destructive move and a step backwards in education.

What is the government proposing with the literacy hour?

Basically there is a set of specific things that must be taught and a set of instructions as to how they should be taught. This is unique in British education in living memory. An anonymous committee has stipulated what children and their teachers will do in any given week across England and Wales.

It is an extraordinary way of looking at education. There is no research evidence quoted or cited. It says teachers should work on a text at three levels—the sounds that make it up, the words that make it up, and then the overall meaning, in that order. Yet when we read it is an active process—we make meanings out of these squiggles on the page.

When I was at school we had somebody who stood up and talked about The Good Samaritan—a bible story. If you were doing The Good Samaritan in the literacy hour, the first thing you would do is discuss the sound Th-e G-oo-d-S-am-a-ri-tan and then you would start talking about whether Good is an adjective and why there is a capital S in Samaritan. By the time you got through all that you would be bored by the whole thing. You wouldn't want to know is this a story about people being nice to each other, is it a crap story or a good story, and all the other ways in which you can make meaning. In The Good Samaritan one of the people who isn't particularly nice is a Jew. I'm Jewish in background. When I heard that story I wondered, "Would I behave in that way?" That was me using my cultural background to respond to it.

Yet the literacy hour documents and the National Curriculum make no reference to the children's backgrounds. You need books that make links with the kids' own lives. Education for the past 30 years was trying to say, "We've got bilingual kids, we've got working class kids, we've got girls or boys. We'd better think about the kind of books that can engage these kids into the reading process." That way of thinking has been completely eradicated with the literacy hour.

In the higher years of primary school now they're not even reading whole books. There isn't time. We are going back to the worst elements of 1950s education where we had little comprehension passages and they used to ask you factual questions about it. At a ludicrous level it would be, "On what leg is Long John Silver's wooden leg?" as a response to Treasure Island which is an incredibly powerful book.

Picture: Jess Hurd

“IF YOU bore children they will not learn,” says children’s writer Michael Rosen

WHAT IS all this doing to children?

THIS IS the tragic thing. They know all the language now. They know "SATs", "Testing", "Literacy hour", "Numeracy hour". Regimenting kids in this way says something about the nature of education. Literacy hour is centralising the thing back into the hands of the teachers who themselves are reduced to the role of functionaries determined by faceless people in a committee. We do not learn sticking one bit onto another. What do we know in life that is like that? Answer—a production line.

This is not how we learn. We learn in spirals, going backwards and forwards. We harvest bits from here and there. We go sideways. We make huge leaps. Literacy hour is about saying if I shout at you, "A noun is a naming word!" long enough you will be able to say it back to me. But that won't help you to understand anything. Because sometimes a noun isn't a naming word!

ISN'T THERE a contradiction between the literacy hour and how children approach language and books?

Yes, there is. In this literacy hour is something called grammar. That is a complicated thing about the nature of language. The old grammars were systems of describing the written Latin and Greek languages. You had to follow very close rules when you wrote. They then tried to transfer those rules into a very complex, diverse thing—the act of speaking and writing the English language. It doesn't work.

There is a grammar that is static and dead, and a grammar that is dynamic and to do with language in use. Shakespeare knew that. When Juliet's dad is yelling at Juliet because he doesn't want her to marry Romeo he says, "Proud me no prouds". Shakespeare knew you could wrench the language around. Proud in the literacy hour would be an adjective. But in "Proud me no prouds" the first proud is a verb and the next one is a noun. You must talk about words in context.

Kids monkey around with language all the time. We writers for kids deliberately monkey around with language. It's an exciting and flexible thing. No one has ever said whether young children can actually understand grammar. There is no research that says primary school kids looking at a passage can genuinely investigate it grammatically. You've got the "jug and mug theory" as it used to be called. The teacher's the jug, the kids are the empty mug, and the teacher's job is to fill the mug.

My dad used to tell me a story of the old days when a teacher flopped down in the staffroom and said, "Well, I've taught it to them. Whether they've learnt it or not is another matter!" If you bore children they will not learn. Much of the business of education is about trying to figure out how to engage the interests of children.

HOW DO children approach books?

'Drifting and browsing. Grabbing hold of a book, reading the stuff on the cover, turning it over, reading the back, reading the first page and going "maybe", "yes", "no". This is what reading is about. Ideally you've got two kids doing it at the same time. This stuff isn't about that. It's about me coming in with a text, you haven't got a choice, then looking at adjectives, nouns and looking at a little bit of the text. It's now dictating the kinds of books in the classrooms. It pays no respect to the massive changes there have been in literature for children.

WHAT IS the mood amongst teachers you have spoken to?

STRESS, STRAIN, an incredible sense of being overworked, being policed. There is also a sense that we must try and find ways of fighting back and link up this literacy hour stuff with all other ways in which teaching is being controlled. Throughout education there is now selection, hidden or explicit. All the efforts that went on before to say that streaming and selection were simply a way of holding back vast percentages of kids have been pushed back. Nobody has dared reintroduce the 11-plus, but what we have now is a hidden 11-plus.

A bit of resistance can connect all these issues. The key issue is performance related pay. The atmosphere in primary school classrooms would be just a nightmare. Say I'm a teacher and I've just done a good lesson. A good teacher will rush into the class next door and share it. You won't do that any more. You'll say, "That's my private bit of knowledge. I musn't share that because I won't get the performance bonus." It's outrageous.

Knowledge is about sharing. You must have cooperation and solidarity. Do the government want cooperation and solidarity amongst teachers? Of course they don't. They want to divide and rule. Its putting in stone the great god competition. It's a big struggle.