Dotards like me are prone to drone on about what bliss it was to be young in the Summer of Love in 1967. I’m afraid it’s still the case. But it was even more blissful to be doing my PGCE at the Institute of Education in that year. The place reflected those fabulously dizzy times and was the most thrilling intellectual environment I’ve ever known – fierce, funny, politically sussed and passionate about state education – all a rather far cry from our present, pusillanimous times.
My teachers included such luminaries as Basil Bernstein, Jimmy Britton and Harold Rosen, whose ideas about language, learning and class made me keenly aware of the tyranny of my own middle class articulacy and of the often-unacknowledged voices of my working class pupils.
Sometimes the Russian heavies like Lev Vigotsky or Alexander Luria were a bit much for my tiny mind, but most of their teaching informed what many of us would do in the classroom. It was practical. It worked. Speaking and Listening became a part of every English lesson and the CSEs and GCSE exams.
“How can we know what we think ‘til we hear what we say?” went the cry. Indeed. Your voice reveals who you are. This was utterly central to English teaching.
Well, no longer. Who says? OFQUAL. Glenys Stacey, their chief regulator, says the GCSE is “seriously flawed” and we must ditch that Speaking and Listening stuff. The pedagogical poverty of this is breathtaking. Bernstein and Britton and Rosen would be turning in their graves. Why must it be ditched? It might be a bit difficult to mark? Well, we worked out some pretty rigorous assessment criteria. Or is it because some pupils, some working class pupils, are better at speaking and listening than writing and OFQUAL want their C grades to turn into D grades? They need their failure, because there are no jobs for them. Why not? We’re cutting most things working class. Why not cut their language?
Dear me! Go to any playground or corridor or classroom. Listen to our pupils speak about Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry or Rihanna’s sexual politics or William Blake’s “Tiger” or Tika Taka Tactics or big gypsy weddings or their useless boyfriends or Zadie Smith’s latest novel. Who can miss their energy, engagement and intelligence? It’s real speech. The living article. It’s who they are.
Who can resist it? Well, OFQUAL can. They want to go back to the 1950s Sit Down and Shuddup model, where tots tick boxes about the dead white male canon. Any fule know this is rubbish. I’m speaking the truth here, Mrs OFQUAL! But you’re not listening. Know what I’m sayin’?