Thursday, 25 May 2023

My thoughts on this year's Key Stage 2 Grammar, punctuation and spelling test (which used to be the SPaG test)

I am looking at the 2023, 'Key stage 2, English grammar, punctuation and spelling test.

Paper 1: questions'

My first thought, as ever, is to wonder about how many hours of work are required to put Year 6 students through this? And for what benefit? I ask this because I know that one of my offspring did this test, did very well at it, and when I ran though some of the terms with him a few years later, he had forgotten them all. 

Ok - brief thoughts on some of the questions:

Question 1 asks 'Which sentence is a command?'

I've talked about this before as an example of how what this kind of grammar calls 'grammar' is very slippery. The word 'command' is not a grammar word. It's a word to describe how we say things to each other. We can command each other to do things in several ways: eg 'You must do this now!'. 'No running in the playground'. 

So what's going on here? 

What they mean, but don't say, is that for the sake of this exam, a 'command' is a sentence that uses the 'imperative' form of the verb. We all know such words and usages eg 'Go out!' or even 'Please don't do that' which of course doesn't sound like a 'command' at all! 

So what you have is a typically fuzzy definition based on a non-grammatical word, when really they mean something else. 

What ends up being tested here is actually not 'grammar' but a fuzzy mix of semantics (meaning) and 'grammar'. 

Question 2 continues with the GPS obsession with 'sentence types'. I can't figure out why they should be obsessed with this. Why is it important to give sentences a name, especially as some of the labels are 'fuzzy' anyway (as with 'command'). Question 2 asks 'Tick one box in each row to show whether the sentence is an exclamation or a question.'

What follows are four sentences (with no punctuation mark at the end of them!) all beginning with 'How'. 

One of these is 'How disappointing it was that it rained on sports day'.

You have to laugh. Who writes this stuff? This is straight out of 1950s middle class talk. Is there anyone left who ever says or writes such things? 

This is supposed to be an 'exclamation'. Again, this is not a 'grammar word'. We can 'exclaim' in many different ways using different grammatical structures eg 'Oh no, I've lost my wallet!' Anyone having to subject themselves to this test knows that the word 'exclamation' here is being squeezed into being a 'grammar word' by linking it to a sentence structure. 

Big irony here: in order to be able to ask this question, the sentences are not completed with a punctuation mark. Think about that. This test and the syllabus belabour children and teachers with the need (desperate need) to finish sentences with the 'correct' punctuation mark - question mark, full stop etc., and here is the test that is supposed to test such things, putting four sentences in front of children without the end mark. 

Of course, we know why they haven't. It's because they would have had to have put an exclamation mark after the exclamation! People will remember the hapless Nick Gibb coming on the radio trying to explain to millions of listeners how and why they were testing children on exclamation marks and clearly failing to do so. 

Again, you have to laugh: the harder they try to be 'correct' the more likely it is that they'll end up putting something incorrect in front of children.  

Question 3 asks the children to 'Draw a line to match each word to a suffix to make four different words. Use each suffix only once.' The four words are 'social', 'relation', 'child' and 'season'. The four suffixes are 'ish', 'al, 'ise', 'ship'. 

I sat up at this one because my 'school grammar' and 'university grammar' comes from the 1950s and 60s. Any of us taught these terms as if they were set in stone are always surprised to see that the terms can change. Anyone who cares about such things as suffixes, will notice that the four suffixes are not the same in kind. Three of them are additions turning them either into another noun (eg 'relationship') or into adjectives (eg 'childish'). One of them is an adjective that you have to turn into a verb (ie 'socialise'). 

I was taught to think of verbs and verb endings as being 'conjugations' rather than being a stem+suffix. But, hey, there you go. If they're suffixes now, let'em be suffixes. It's all part of the arbitrary terminology diarrhoea that afflicts this subject. Someone reading this will blow a gasket longing to 'correct' me to tell me that they 'ARE' really suffixes, as if labels are more important than language. 

Question 4 involves an Oxford comma twitch. People who write this stuff are obsessed with whether the 'Oxford comma' is right or wrong. (Imagine being such a person!). Some people nearly die if they see a comma before the word 'and'. If I was teaching Year 6s I would tell them that if they care about the health of others, they must remember that if any question asks you to insert a comma into a sentence, never, never, never put it in the front of the word 'and', or far off, someone may pass away. 

Question 6 asks 'Which pair of words are antonyms?

Antonyms are not grammar. They are semantics. They have no place on a grammar paper. Grammarians know this. The fact that they are in a grammar test is testament to the fact that grammarians were cowed by Michael Gove when it came to devising this absurd syllabus. In fact, 'antonyms' are a weird concept drawn from tests and syllabuses from the 19th century. Linguistics has taught us over the last 50 years or more that there is no such thing as a synonym or an antonym. That's not how language works. Words are so full of lovely variation and 'connotation' that we can't tie them to such concepts as 'antonym' and 'synonym' - except of the sake of tests and TV quizzes. 

The answer to this question is 'proper' and 'improper'. 

I'll state the obvious: 'proper' can be used in many different ways: eg 'he's a proper little devil', 'the proper way to learn a part is to cover the page', 'she was very polite and very proper'. The word 'improper' may or may not match the many ways we use the word 'proper'. Logically speaking then, they are only antonyms for the sake of this question! 

I quite often talk about how far from 'language-use', these grammar test go. This is a prime example. Language-use tells us that 'proper' is a word we can use flexibly, variously with nice, subtle differences. The word 'improper', less so. In order to answer this question, we invite children to dispense with the flexibility of language-in-use, and come up with a bit of absurd, non-grammatical labelling.

Question 9 - another non-grammar question. It asks 'Which sentence is the most formal?' 

Others may help me here. I've struggled to find in course materials a reasonable and rational explanation of the word 'formal', as used in these tests. It's quite clearly not only a matter of grammar because these questions often slip in a slightly slangy noun or verb which is being used in a 'standard English' way (ie 'correctly') but is presumably not 'formal'. So here we have the sentence 'Please pack up all your stuff before you leave.' I guess that the examiners think 'stuff' is informal. This is not a matter of grammar. It's a matter of 'register'. They've decided that 'stuff' is not 'formal'. (Go figure!) 

The formal sentence is, presumably: 'It is essential that you take all  your belongings with you.' For this to be 'formal' it's through its 'lexis' (ie choice of vocabulary) and not through grammar. 

This is how 'grammar' gets afflicted with mission creep. 'Grammar' creeps into 'style' and telling children how they 'should' write. 

Question 10 is a 'synonyms' question. More non-grammar in a 'grammar' test. 'Overjoyed' and 'delighted' are supposedly synonyms here. They are similar. Or they are in the same 'lexical field'. They each have different connotations. 

Question 13 throws me completely:

'Insert a colon in the correct place in the sentence below.

Dipti is keen to practise the drums she wants to play in the school band.'

Wot? I can't think of any circumstance where I'd put a colon in that sentence!  Call me uncouth, but I wouldn't put any punctuation in that sentence, let alone a colon. I use colons in one restricted way only. I use them following a general word and before a list of things that are part of that general word, or as a mark to indicate 'like this'. So I might write, 'There are a few supermarkets round here: Sainsbury's, Asda, Lidl, Waitrose etc.' Or I might write, 'The rule states clearly that you can not run in school: 'Do not run in the corridors or classrooms'.' 

Well, I didn't get my mark for that question. 

Question 14 is 'Which question is the most formal

What is this need to be 'formal'? Again the reason why one of the sentences is more formal than another is semantic not grammatical. 'I asked him to phone me when he got here' is presumably meant to be less formal than 'I requested that he telephone me on arrival.' 

Somewhere deep in the minds of the examiners is the notion that 'request' is more 'formal' than 'ask' and - here's the exciting bit [irony alert], the construction 'that he telephone me' contains what they say is....a 'subjunctive'. 

Note: not all grammarians are convinced that this IS a subjunctive. Some think that it's some strange bit of English usage that can be ring-fenced and labelled but best not to dignify it with the term 'subjunctive' because it doesn't 'conjugate'. This means that it can't really be compared with, say, the subjunctive in French, which is really an extraordinary, subtle, complex form that can be used to indicate a mix of doubt, caution, suggestion, tentative thought and so on. 

However, Michael Gove said that he wanted the subjunctive in the test. The grammarians said they weren't too sure about that. Michael Gove was sure. That's why the children learn it. That's why this sentence is included in the test. 

Question 18 asks the children to spot the use of the 'present progressive'. I include this one because once again it gives me a laugh. Back in the 1950s and 60s, we were taught that there is a tense called 'the present continuous'. That's what it IS, we were told. That verb form IS the present continuous. The present continuous IS that particular verb form - usually expressed by '-ing' endings on the end of the stem of the verb. 

One reason why it was interesting, they told us, is that French doesn't have that verb form. It's expressed with a phrase that looks like 'in train of..' ('Je suis en train de manger un croissant' 'I'm eating a croissant') 

Then at some point, some grammarians decided that it ISN'T the 'present continuous'. It IS the 'present progressive'. 

Why? Why did it change? Who decided? Why did that then become THE term? What bit of new knowledge about this verb form has necessitated this new term? I dunno. 

Question 29, sees a visitation of the dreaded 'fronted adverbial'. However, it's in its most diluted form. (I sense a retreat from this monster.) All that the students are asked to do here is punctuate it with a comma in the right place. As it happens, there is a trick in the question. Many of the children will have learnt it in a mechanical way - there's only time to learn it mechanically. One of the sentences is 'Luckily for us the ball rolled slowly past the goal.' 

The trick here is that many children would bung a comma in after 'luckily' because that's how they were taught the dreaded 'fronted adverbial. Trouble is, on this occasion, the f.a. is 'Luckily for us...' Boooo! Trick question. 

Question 31 is another bite at the exclamation cherry. Why so interested in exclamations and exclamation marks? Do they matter that much? When you think of all the amazing, exciting things to say about language, or all the exciting language activities you could be doing with children, and you end up with talking about exclamation marks! Doh!

Question 33 asks 'What are the underlined words in the sentence below?'

You have a choice of answer: a relative clause, a subordinate clause, a main clause, a noun phrase.

This is a perfect example of the dull cul-de-sac that grammar takes you into. You have a phrase 'The girl with curly red hair' and all that grammar is interested in is what you can label it with. The question asks 'What are the underlined words..' as if the label IS that use of language and that use of language IS that label. 

Again, there are all sorts of things we could say about that use of language, the least significant and least useful for 10, and 11 years olds is what label you can stick on it in order to test teachers whether they can teach 10 and 11 year old children that this label is important. Older school students perhaps, but 10 and 11 year olds? Really?

Question 39 asks the children to 'Complete the sentence below with an appropriate subordinating conjunction.' 

In an ideal world, how vital is it for 10 and 11 year olds to know the difference between coordinating and subordinating conjunctions? Let's say that the great god grammar decides that they should all know that there are such things as 'conjunctions' (I think we called them 'joining words' when I was at primary school in the 1950s). How vital is it that they need to know that there are two kinds of conjunction and that there'll be a test which will try to see if you can get it right? 

As an aside, and nothing to do with this question,  I have never bought the idea that 'but' is a coordinating conjunction - 'and' and 'or', fair enough, but why 'but'? A clause following 'but' is often dependent in meaning on the clause that comes before it. Maybe it should be called a thing of its own - 'a depending conjunction'. See! You can play the grammar game too!

Question 40 is a nasty, trick question. The examiners know that hard-pressed teachers say that adverbs are often '-ly' words. So of course here's a question where the adverb is not a '-ly' word. 

'The boy had seven brothers, each one quite different from the others.' 

This reminds us that the term 'adverb' is stupendously useless. 'Adverb' sounds like it does something to verbs. Sometimes it does. Hooray. But it also 'does' something to adjectives, as with the word 'quite' here. And it can also do something to whole sentences, as with 'However, he couldn't find his keys.' That used to be called a 'sentence adverb' but now we have to call it a 'fronted adverbial' and we're all so much more intelligent and able to deal with the problems of the world, as a result.

Question 41 is a beast. 

 'Complete each sentence with a word from the same word family as proud.'

The graphic shows two sentences with a blank and the word 'proud' under the blank. You have to change the word 'proud' so that it can fit in the blank. The two sentences are:

'We [BLANK] represented our school in the competition'


'We took [BLANK] in representing our school in the competition.

The first is, presumably 'proudly' and the second, presumably, is 'pride'.

Why do I say it's a beast? 

I don't know this term 'word family'. People will have to tell me if that's taught these days as a concept. It's a new one on me. I must keep up. I've staggered through at least 11 years of grammar education without knowing this term, so I'd better add on a bit more work in order to keep up. 

It makes sense to grammarians to think of a word like 'proud' in such a way that they can turn it into 'proudly' and 'pride'. If you look at language-in-use, we can ask ourselves, how often do we 'turn' a word like 'proud' into 'pride'. That isn't how we construct sentences. 

We create language-in-use according to who's speaking and writing, who's listening and reading (ie the participants); according to the subject-matter of what we are saying and writing (sometimes called the 'field'); and according to the type of talk and the type of writing that we are performing (often called 'genre'). We hardly ever do what this test question asks us to do, which is shunt between grammatical forms to slot them into blanks. 

Sunday, 21 May 2023

Three Twitter threads on reading, language and a response to an article in the Sunday Times today by Nick Gibb


I will try to tackle the untruths (in this article below by Nick Gibb) in my tweets that follow
How we won the phonics war and got England reading
The modern debate about how to teach children to read was triggered in 1955 by the publication in America of Why Jonny Can’t Read. Rudolph Flesch’s book told...
NICK GIBB'S ARTICLE HERE (from Sunday Times today)
My tweets begin here:
1. Gross oversimplification of 1950s methods and what replaced them eg the 'Beacon Readers' focused explicitly on phonics+meaning simultaneously (as described in the teachers' accompanying guide).
2. Analysis of the Clackmannanshire schools shows that there were factors at work in those schools other than those to do with how reading was being taught.
3. Phonics wasn't 'dismissed'. The argument was over whether phonics should be integrated with other methods or not. Gibb advocated 'first, fast and only'.
4. Gibb cites improvements in the phonic screening check scores. Reading lists of words out loud is not reading. It's decoding. Pure phonics (first, fast and only) teaches children how to decode.
5. Gibb makes the leap from pure phonics (his favoured method) to 'reading for pleasure'. If the govt were serious about 'RfP' it would put as much resources into RfP as it does into phonics.
6. You'll notice that Gibb has shifted from 'first, fast and only' (which is what he was saying in 2011) to 'first and foremost'. Why? What caused him to shift?
7. He attacks the Institute of Education's research on reading but simply labels them as the enemy. No argument. No discussion.
8. Missing from the article is the retreat from the excessive, politicised claims that Gibb made in 2011 ie that systematic synthetic phonics teaching would 'eradicate illiteracy'. It hasn't. And anyway, he's adapted the 'purism' of 'first, fast and only'.
9. Missing from the article is the problem of the mismatch between the phonics screening check scores (ie decoding) and the scores for the key stage 2 English tests (ie 'reading') . Why do these latter tests flatline? Where's the magic improvement supposedly won by pure phonics?
10. The Pirls results simply show an improvement in ranking. According to Pirls the Literacy standards in England stayed the same. According to Gibb, and the magic wand of systematic synthetic phonics, they should have massively improved.
11. Why is Gibb being enthusiastic about 'reading for pleasure' and what is he really doing about it? He knows that the evidence that putting books into children's hands to browse, choose and read (and to discard!) improves literacy is overwhelming.
12. He is being enthusiastic here because he knows the evidence. (I personally handed him the evidence at a meeting at the DfE) but it needs resourcing, supporting, training and given space in the curriculum. Simply saying 'Reading for pleasure' doesn't do the job.
13. Even so, if in the last 10 years, Nick Gibb has done some amount of fostering and encouraging reading for pleasure, if then he claims success for literacy levels, how will he (and others) distinguish between success due to phonics and success due to Reading for Pleasure?
14. At the heart of the matter is whether 'meaning' matters as and when you learn to read. The 'pure' phonics argument was (still is?) that you should teach the abstract 'alphabetical principle of the writing system of English') BEFORE you deal with meaning.
15. Though I (and others) are typified as being people who were 'against' phonics, that is untrue. I (and others) said that we were in favour of 'blended' methods which involve phonics but include reading for meaning eg through reading picture books - as many parents do anyway!
16. Fave Gibb moment: sitting with him on a panel in front of parents. He tells them that if they gave their young children books that included words that were NOT phonically regular, it would 'confuse' them. I went home and threw away our picture books immediately. Not.
17. And beware value of Pirls rankings:
Pirls themselves say: "Research findings suggest that many test-items do not necessarily perform in a comparable manner across countries and languages, which undermines the comparability of the pupils’ average performance estimates." (2016)
18. In case people think I'm lying about govt adherence to 'first, fast and only' while Gibb is now saying 'first and foremost' (note the retreat), here is what Ofsted is saying right now: ie 'first, fast and only'. (You're out of sync Nick!)

19. In fact what Ofsted are demanding here is absurd both in the field of reading and writing. It demands for example that we all stop sharing picture books with our 4,5,6 year olds! It demands stopping children experimenting writing eg their names, mostly not phonically regular!
20. Before Nick rushes to the newspapers to talk about this stuff, he should check what it is that his inspection system are trying to enforce on to early years, and then write about that.


Second twitter thread today on reading and language:
1/There's an educational theory like this: clever people have broken down a particular bit of knowledge into its constituent parts. In education we'll start with the smallest bits, we'll call them 'building blocks' (metaphor borrowed from mechanics) and 'work up' from there.
2/ There are several problems with this: a) what are being called 'constituent parts' may be disputed b) there may be 'parts' or 'processes' which are crucial but which may not have been included in 'constituent parts' and the pedagogic one c) (see next tweet)
3/ c) that simply because a chunk of knowledge CAN be broken into certain supposed constituent parts, it may not follow that this is the best way to teach that chunk of knowledge.
4/This is particularly so in the case of 'reading'. Reading is a kind of knowledge which involves many processes that's because language is complex and reading it is likewise.
5/ It's possible to break down 'reading language' into various constituent parts and it's tempting to start with the smallest parts and 'work up' calling the smallest parts 'building blocks'. But we can ask, does this correspond to 'reading language'?
6/ The case in point is saying eg 'reading at its 'smallest' level is 'letters and sounds' so we should leave the bigger stuff - like 'meaning' (ie what language means) till later.' What's the problem with this?
7/ At heart, the problem is that it imports a 'mechanical model' (ie from the building trade - 'building blocks') into a mental and intellectual activity - reading language. We have developed language in order to make meanings for ourselves and between ourselves.
8/ The theory behind first, fast and only systematic synthetic phonics is that it's desirable to start with the mechanically devised smallest units of language and leave the other stuff till later.
9/ This asks of children to suspend their responsive, reflective, intellectual, interpretive selves while they decode and are tested for their decoding abilities. We see that some children can do this. Some can't or won't.
10/ It's not the magic wand that the proponents have always claimed that it is. Essentially phonics teaching teaches phonics pretty well. It doesn't teach irregularities (because that needs other methods) and it doesn't teach meaning (ie interpretation, reflection).
11) Another answer might be to say, 'don't keep trying to find a magic wand in technique and think more about resources (ie books, libraries) and staffing (ie librarians, teachers, teaching assistants)'.
12/ Another answer might be to look at the theory underpinning this. Instead of being 'mechanical', why not try being 'dynamic'? This involves thinking of all the processes of language and reading and moving between them as we teach and as children learn.
13/ In case this sounds fiendishly difficult, just think of sitting with a four year old reading 'The Gruffalo' or 'Where the Wild Things Are' together for the 10th or 30th time (!) because the child has asked you to do that.
14/ What happens? You read, the child joins in, asks questions, you answer, you ask questions, you talk about the pictures, the child points at words, you point at words, you point at letters, the child points at letters. When you're away from the book, you refer to it...
15/ Maybe you play with some of the sounds or ideas in the books. When you're out for a walk, you hunt for a Griffalo or a Ruffalo or a Tuffalo. Maybe your child draws their version of one of these. Maybe you scribe a story the child tells about it, maybe they try to write it.
16/ Maybe you have some magnet letters (or some such) and you make words to do with The Gruffalo (or anything else (mum, dad, family names, local places, foods we like, or made-up words) using the letters.
17/ None of this is as complex as the theory behind it ie 'dynamic' instead of 'mechanical'. The child is engaged with many elements and processes at the same time using their reflective, intellectual, interpretative minds putting the whole 'chunk of knowledge' together.
18/ Of course at any time of choosing, we can 'notice'/talk about/look at patterns in English but neither extreme is true ie English is neither completely regular nor is it totally irregular. It's fun making up words using the regularities. Thus 'Jabberwocky' by Lewis Carroll and
19, eg Ning nang nong (Spike Milligan), plenty of Edward Lear's stuff and nursery rhymes. They use the regularity of English to create new words, names and sounds. Thus 'Humpty Dumpty' (which only occurs in that form in that rhyme but is readable because of the regularity of it.
20/ But the power of these rhymes is that they are funny, they are playful, they are memorable, they are adaptable (make up your own), they are full of meaning and puzzlingly possible interpretations (was Humpty pushed?) and they are stories (narratives).
21/ So if you read these kinds of 'texts' with young children and play games with them, and integrate those into writing (in different forms pen-paper, fridge-magnets, writing in sand, pastry, mist on windows etc) you are teaching the whole language process in one.
22/ But this whole language process method needs supporting all the way through and the best way to do that is through staffing, resourcing, training in what even Gibb concedes is necessary: Reading for Pleasure! (I'm glad he uses the research I gave him as evidence: Evans et al)


1/ Then there is the issue of 'talk' (or 'oracy'). We have to remember that talk is the primary act of language for small children. It's how they express what they know and need, their desires, fears, hates, anger, love etc.
2/ Writing is not separate from talk. It was invented as a way of preserving what we say (or count) and then developed into certain specialised forms of expression not often or usually expressed exactly that way in speech and conversation.
3/ For children, (as with us) most saying/speaking/conversing is to make meaning - to express these things. We are showing them that writing can 'catch' some of this stuff and put it in front of them as writing on paper, screens, signs, anywhere.
4/ Why not keep this connection going as we teach them to read? Put what's said and sayable on to paper (screen etc),put what they actually say on to paper etc, so they can see the value of doing it. Make sure that the texts we give them are very sayable and memorable and...
5/ ......and so they are 'bridges' between the oral world they live in and the written world we are inducting them into. They can be full of the phrases and sequences that they do say, or could say or might want to say, that they can repeat, want to repeat.
6/ That way we show that writing is this brilliant invention that can seemingly magically 'catch' the stuff that we/they just walk about saying/doing. And vice versa, if the stuff they read is worth saying (fun saying) then you read it, know it, learn it, repeat it! Magic!
7/ Again, there is a theory behind this. It is saying that the reading language is not mechanical, it's dynamic and total. It's about reading, listening, speaking, writing...all in one. And it's so so simple. It's Humpty Dumpty and the Gruffalo and having a laugh.

Friday, 19 May 2023

How to massage the media to send out a message to make people believe that 'Literacy' standards in England are improving:


'Despite the improvement in ranking, England’s score remained virtually unchanged since the last round of assessments in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls), which took place in 2016, with its average actually dropping marginally...'
People reading headlines on how England is doing in 'Literacy' might have got the impression that it's going great. In fact, the scores have stayed the same but England's rank in the international table has gone up. Like a football team that can play the same but go up the table.
So there's been a huge bit of highly successful media massage in order to claim that England's kids are doing better at literacy than ever before.
In a word, this is rubbish. And amazingly, apart from this little para halfway through a Guardian article, no one's noticed.

Monday, 3 April 2023

Focussing on the feeling in the flow: how to avoid critiquing 'Highway 61 Revisited'.

 I go on and on being amazed by 'Highway 61 Revisited'. How could someone that young have produced such images, feelings, sounds, cadences, ideas...? It's also taught me to swerve away from trying to analyse each word-use, each image, each sequence in terms of meaning but instead to focus on the feeling in the flow. This is very hard to describe in language but in a way it's a response on the edge of language anyway. So if Dylan sings, 'When you're lost in the rain in Juarez and it's Easter Time too' (me) don't have to work out whether Dylan is really lost or why it's Easter and where is Juarez. That's too specific and 'referential'. Instead you can just 'sit in' the emotion of the line...After all he hands it to 'you' if 'you' want to take it. `it doesn't matter if you (me) hasn't ever been lost in the rain in Juarez. He's just saying imagine if you are, be in a daydream where you could be and think about that feels like.

This runs totally counter to all that literary criticism that I (we) have been taught how to do, and indeed what I teach. That's why it's hard to describe this kind of response. I am over-tutored to do the other thing. I'm not saying all literature is like this - far from it, but it seems to me that there are various people who have tried to write poems, songs and fiction (or passages in fiction) like this, where what's uppermost is a feeling rather than what I'm calling 'referential' writing. I suspect that other writers like this are some of TS Eliot's early stuff, or Dylan Thomas.
Interestingly, I've heard Joan Baez describe how Dylan was at this time, manically reading and writing, writing and reading, just getting stuff down on the page. But of course, it's not all random. Far from it. Dylan was lucky to have in his head a vast bank of songs from the blues, Woody Guthrie, country music, as well as the literary stuff he was reading. So he could combine the 'feeling writing' of the modernists with the musical phrasing of these people.
Anyway, I'm listening over and over again to the tracks, not in order to extract more meaning from them but in order to not extract more meaning from them! But to try and sit in the lines (and it's a very 'line' oriented way of writing), letting one long line after another roll on. It's a fascinating thing to do and totally against the way I have listened or read most of the time.
After all, he asks us 'how does it feel to be on your own?'. He doesn't say, work out what that means. He asks us to think about how we feel.

Tuesday, 3 January 2023

Fronted adverbials? What about fronted adjectivals?

 Anyone who teaches KS2 children (10 and 11 year olds) knows that they have to learn about fronted adverbials. In spite of the complicated name, they are not that difficult to 'get'. When we speak and write, we use 'main clauses'. The simplest forms of these are statements, questions, commands and exclamations - with no frills - as with 'I'm going out.' Or 'Do you want a biscuit?' Or 'Don't throw that!' Or 'What a great day!'  We also add stuff to these main clauses which we do using words like 'when' or 'which' or 'and' or 'because'. And we can use phrases that begin with 'prepositions' like 'in', 'with' or 'through'. You can try making up some sentences doing all this, eg, 'When I'm fed up, I go for a walk'. Or, 'Do you want a biscuit, or would you rather have something else?' And so on. 

One name for one kind of word is 'adverb'. It's a strange category of word because some examples are obvious because they appear to be doing what that word 'adverb' sounds like: they add something to a verb. Here we go: 'I'm eating quickly'. So 'quickly' adds something to the verb 'I'm eating'. It tells us more about how I'm eating. Conveniently, for word-spotters, it has an -ly ending which many adverbs have. Note: not all -ly words are called adverbs though! 'I hope you have a lovely time.' ('lovely' is called an 'adjective' because it tells us more about a 'noun' - in this case 'time'.) 

Adverbs: grammarians say that adverb is also the name for words that tell us more about adjectives, more about other adverbs,  and more about whole sentences. Examples: 'You're really cross'. ('really' intensifies 'cross'. 'I'm running very fast.' You can think of many more of these and we keep coming up with new intensifiers like 'terrifically', 'amazingly' and so on.. We can also use adverbs that seem to be telling us more about whole sentences. We have a wide range of these doing quite different things. Try beginning sentences with these words, 'however', 'lately', 'furthermore', 'gradually', 'eventually'. 

I said there, 'try beginning a sentence'. Aha! In other words, that adverb will come in front of the main clause. It's fronted! It's a fronted adverbial. 'Gradually, I eased open the cupboard...' 

Of course, we can do this with more than one word. We can do it with phrases: 'Ever so gradually, I eased open the cupboard...' Or 'In a while, I'll do something else...' So, these are 'adverbial phrases' rather than single word 'adverbs'. 

Now go back to when I said that we can use words like 'when' and 'where'. We make sentences using these all the time and when we do, we can put them in front of the main clause or after them. 'When I dance, I waggle my eyebrows.' or 'I waggle my eyebrows, when I dance'. 'When I dance' is what some call an 'adverbial clause of time'. It's adverbial because it tells us more about 'waggle'. It's a clause because it includes a whole or 'finite' verb ('I dance') and it's about 'time' because it has the word 'when'. There are other kinds of adverbial clauses - try making up clauses beginning with eg 'if' or 'although'.  You will have got it by now that if you can put an adverbial clause in front of the main clause then it's a 'fronted adverbial'. 

Put all that together: adverbs, adverbial phrases and adverbial clauses can be fronted. 

So far so good. 


Take a look at a passage of writing and you can see writers putting all sorts of things in front of the main clause. You can experiment. How about these - imagine some of them in poems, where we quite often like to 'front' or 'invert' the usual sentence order. Are they all 'fronted adverbials'? As a result of KS2 Grammar teaching, we might think they all are!

How about these?

'Well-known for being a good speaker, Mary stood up and began.'

'As a speaker of French, I knew what to say.'

'Wearier than he had ever been before, old Jack sat in the corner.'

To my mind, these fronted phrases tell us more about Mary, 'I' and 'Jack'. In other words, they 'modify' (in these cases, proper noun and  pronouns. Words that modify nouns, pronouns and proper nouns, get to be called 'adjectives'. So are these 'fronted adjectivals'? Well, according to the grammar being taught, no such thing exists. 

Why not?

One reason I've been given is that grammarians have a secret definition of adverbs(!). Adverbs are words that modify - yes - but they are the kind of word that you can move about very flexibly in a sentence outside of noun phrases. Let's try it with the word 'apparently'. 'Apparently, Gareth liked peaches.' 'Gareth - apparently - liked peaches.' 'Gareth liked - apparently - peaches.' 'Gareth liked peaches, apparently'. Hmmm, some of those are easier to say than others but you can, with intonation, make them all work. 

Does this make my phrases (I'm saying they are adjectival) become adverbial because they've been fronted? That doesn't seem right.

Now for a bit of logic. Let me introduce you to dangling or hanging modifiers. 

Here's a sentence I spotted in the Guardian:

'As a former Bank of England economist, it must have struck Rachel Reeves that her old employer...etc etc.

Very strictly speaking, according to the old rules derived from Latin, different parts of sentences have to 'refer' to each other. Ask yourself what does the 'it' refer to? The 'it' seems to refer to 'As a former Bank of England economist' because the 'rule' says that a modifying clause or phrase has to modify the subject of the main clause - unless you slot in a phrase straight after the noun being referred to. The subject is 'it' but clearly the phrase refers to Rachel Reeves. (Incidentally, I'm not bothered one bit by this, I'm simply citing the kind of 'rule' that people like me were taught.) One way out of this supposed 'error' is to write, 'It must have struck Rachel Reeves, as a former Bank of England economist, that her employer etc etc...' Slotting the phrase in straight after Rachel Reeves, prevents the modifying phrase from dangling, we might say.

Why am I saying all this? Because that sentence is an example of fronting. AND, if it's an example of a dangling modifier, in this case, it must be adjectival - either modifying 'it' (no) or Rachel Reeves (yes). So it's a fronted adjectival.

But no, say the grammarians, fronted adjectivals don't exist. 

Why do I think any of this matters?

1. Making a great big fuss about fronted adverbials is nothing to do with 'grammar' and everything to do with 'style' or 'stylistics'. I resent the fact that grammarians have nosed their way into the matter of style in writing, demanding and claiming that their version of how we describe language is right. I resent the fact that they are imposing this particular stylistic trick on to primary school children as if it's in some way or another more important than 100s of other stylistic tricks we can go in for. This field could have been left to people who are great at talking about stylistics. This would have been much more useful for children and their writing. 

2. I think I have shown that there's something faulty or inconsistent in the way the language is being described here. Logically, there is clearly a way in which we can front adjectives and adjectival phrases. They must therefore be as equally interesting or uninteresting as fronted adverbials. I suspect that something arbitrary has taken place. The grammar curriculum was put together in a rush by a group of grammarians hired by Michael Gove to do a job that had nothing to do with grammar or language. Grammar was chosen as a topic for assessing teachers. This was done by the Bew Report (2011). It was decided that Grammar could be tested because, it was said, it had 'right and wrong' answers. This is nonsense, as has been shown by many people including Professor David Crystal (see the famous 'The sun shone bright' example). In the rush to find what the grammarians thought were suitable topics for testing children, they arrived at 'fronted adverbials'. One account of what happened suggests that one grammarian just came up with it on the spur of the moment and it was quickly shoe-horned into the curriculum. 

3. Clearly, fronting takes place in English. People do it all the time when speaking or writing. The most common one is using the word 'hopefully' at the beginning of a sentence! But as I've said, it's just a matter of style. Singling it out as super-important, or as a feature we should be concentrating on because it's good, is illogical and absurd. There is no virtue in fronting or not fronting. Some fronting is good. Some fronting is naff. And as to whether it's adverbial or adjectival has just complicated matters for everyone concerned. I've highlighted it simply in order to point out the feebleness of the terminology that they insist is accurate and necessary. 

Elsewhere on this blog, I've pointed out that there are plenty of other examples of dodgy terminology, disputed terms that they demand children learn as if they are the final and sole ways of describing language. I've leave you with one of them: 'I'm going out tomorrow'. The 'tense of the verb in that sentence is described as 'present progressive' though we used to call it 'present continuous'. The names of these parts of speech keep changing and no one ever explains why they change! Another absurdity! So that's a 'present' tense but clearly the sentence is talking about something happening in the future - ie 'tomorrow'. In other words, a particular verb form is not automatically referring to a particular time-frame. The word 'tense' is not always useful or relevant when talking about English. Much better, would be to have a concept of sentences being able to indicate time through a variety of words. In this case, 'tomorrow' is part of how that sentence indicates time. Conceptually, thinking of time as fixed by verbs and verbs alone is faulty. The daft thing is that once you accept that language is varied, full of variants, and ever-changing, you can rid yourself of these prescriptive ways of describing language and come up with much better, flexible ways of doing it. But then you can't come up with the false concept that grammar is right or wrong, can you? (Bew Report).  And then force teachers to teach it, so that teachers can be assessed...

Thursday, 17 November 2022

Caroline Benn Lecture: Socialist Education Association talk on 'What have the arts ever done for us?'

It’s an honour and a delight to be giving this talk in the name of Caroline Benn. I didn’t know Caroline personally but I was lucky enough to see and hear her speak on one occasion - at a meeting on comprehensive education, I think, and I read a few of her writings. I’m very glad that her name is attached to the idea that groups of us can meet and talk about education as we’re doing tonight. This involves a principle: that talking about education matters. That may seem obvious but let’s do a bit of a walk-around of what I’ve just said - before we get on with the subject of tonight’s talk. It’s very relevant, as you’ll see, because it’s about how things happen and get done (or not done) in education. The ‘realpolitik’ of education, if you like.

I confess, I’ve come to a rather cynical conclusion about education and ‘ideas in education’ - the very thing we’re doing today. I believe that what actually happens in schools and in classrooms has become less and less to do with what classroom teachers believe in and more and more to do with the decisions that ministers of education make. 

I come from a tradition - in my family actually, (both my parents) - who believed that education for all improved through an exchange of ideas between practising teachers and former teachers who had become teacher-trainers, inspectors and advisers. This exchange took place through talks, books, papers, reports and conferences. The shelves in our house when I was growing up, bowed under the weight of this mass of words. 

As many of you know, something changed in 1988 and for whichever political party or parties who have been in power, education has been something to be planned, run and ordered from the top, from government. This has been implemented through acts which have restructured schools, inspection, assessment, examinations, created league tables, made statutory demands on the curriculum, along with non-statutory requirements which become de facto demands through inspection and assessment.  

As an aside, I seem to remember that the journalist, Simon Jenkins, once called this the ‘nationalisation’ of education, which poses a challenge to those of here who call ourselves socialists. 

Anyway,  in my lifetime, one consequence of this centralisation is that it has involved changes in at least two different ways: 

1) a clampdown on initiatives that came from that school of thought and action that believed in the process that I’ve called the ‘exchange of ideas process’. (An example that I saw at close quarters, the rise and fall (at great expense) of the “Language in the National Curriculum Project” for reasons that seemed entirely to do with the fact that ideas were being shared outside of government control. 

and 2) Adjustments made by people who work through NGOs, advisory bodies, charities, consultancies, not on the basis of what is argued for but on the basis of what has to be done because the government say it has to be done. 

To take one example of how this works: what’s called ‘grammar’ in primary schools. This was introduced half way through a report on assessment and accountability - the Bew Report 2011. It seems as if the Secretary of State at the time decided that a good way to assess teachers would be to demand that children aged 10 and 11 should sit an exam in grammar. The justification for this was that grammar tests would give examiners fail-safe right and wrong answers. In other words, teachers would teach a form of grammar that certain terms (like ‘present perfect tense’ and certain forms of language-use (like ‘subject verb agreement’) are either right or wrong. If children failed to pass this exam, this would show that teachers were not doing their job.  You may have noticed that this doesn’t have much to do with what’s good for children, and has a lot to do with what’s good for data collectors, in this case the government. It’s a system that gives them data which, they believe, proves whether teachers are any good or not. 

However, there is no linguistic justification for saying that all grammar of all language-use produces right and wrong answers. I’m learning a language right now, (2 hour classes every Sunday night) and every lesson is full of expressions from the teacher like: ‘you can say this, or  you can say that’  and ‘some people say this and some people say that’. 

If you think I’ve been talking nonsense about language so far, I’ll ask you to have a think about a piece of language that some of us see nearly everyday: the words ‘no smoking’ written up on the walls of places we pass through. An excellent piece of writing, I think. I think all of us in the room know what it means and yet it doesn’t  make sense. Think about it: at face value (not its real meaning), it seems to be some kind of statement about how there’s no smoking going on! And yet we all know, in fact,  it’s a demand or command. But school grammar tells us something else. It says that commands are structured differently: as in ‘Resign!’ or ‘Don’t look at me in that tone of voice.’ But as we know ‘no smoking’ in the context we find it, means ‘don’t smoke’ this would suggest that language is indeed much more than grammar and it is not what the Bew Report said it was - namely that it’ll produce right and wrong answers.

Just to be clear, I’m talking about this, to remind ourselves that the place we’re in is that the Secretary of State can, could and did decide what would go on in every classroom he was statutorily in charge of  - not because it was justified in intellectual terms but because it would be a good way to assess teachers. The knock-on effect of this was that the curriculum subject we call ‘writing’ changed - some of which is part of the arts. Good writing, was now called meeting ‘the required level’ which meant that it had to incorporate features of this ‘grammar’. I was told at one parents’ meeting that our offspring was doing good writing because he was embedding his relative clauses. 

Those of us who both write and who are interested in linguistics scratched our heads: our writing and the writing of millions of our predecessors is full of good writing which does NOT incorporate features of this particular form of grammar - the first pages of ‘Bleak House’ being a wonderful example. 

However, the secondary consequence is the flowering of advice, consultations, publications and conferences which implement something - in this case ‘grammar’ -  whose real justification as I say, was not linguistic, (not intellectual if you like), but purely administrative: how to assess teachers.  

If you don’t believe me on the absurdity of this, I will share with you a bit of gossip: the Secretary of State in question looked over the materials that his team of linguists had assembled for the first grammar test. He was disappointed to see that there was no mention of the subjunctive. He asked them to put the subjunctive in the test. They wobbled. The subjunctive in English is a contested matter. There IS something different we do with verbs in certain structures but linguists who glance across at other languages - French, say,  - can see that our subjunctive isn’t as big as theirs…so perhaps we should call our ‘thingy’ something else? No, no, no, said the Secretary of State, I want the subjunctive to be in. So that’s why every year hundreds of thousands of children study the subjunctive, do a test in the subjunctive, and then 99% of them forget about it for the rest of their lives. 

If you think this is trivial, then you might be interested to know that many of the other concepts, terms and processes described as right and wrong by this kind of grammar are contested too. (See me later for examples.) Indeed the very idea that language-use can be reduced to naming of parts and a pre-ordained structure of a written sentence is contested. (Again, see me later for examples.)

Why am I talking about this in a talk billed as being about the arts?  

Because anything and everything we do in schools is about a choice between what to do and what not to do. But this is not a free choice. Parts of the school day have been pre-determined. A good deal of the school day is a  Choice Free Zone. Any discussion of the arts in education has to take this on board.

My argument so far, then is that whatever I say today about the arts takes place in the contexts I’ve just described - call it what you will - central control, government requirements or whatever. However, it’s not a central control for all our children. 

Again, in one of the weirdnesses of our education system, what is a diktat directed to one set of children, is not a diktat for another set. Someone like me who passes from school to school can hardly believe what I hear when teachers in one kind of school tell me that ‘we have to do such-and-such’ and a teacher in another kind of school says that ‘we don’t have to do’ that very same such-and such. I have to reassure myself that the reason for this is that, say,  I’ve passed from England to Wales, or from a local authority school to an academy or from one kind of academy to another kind of academy or for other reasons that I haven’t understood. 

This too is part of the context in which we talk about arts in schools. In other words, a complex dance is going on across education in which some schools are doing more arts education than other schools and that the reasons for this are to be found deep in real or imagined demands from central government, or from other authorities who run education at a lower level - Multi-academy trusts, inspectors and the like. Because this IS such a complex dance, I am not going to ply you with statistics on how the arts are being squeezed out of schools - or as I should say SOME schools. 

When I go into schools, I perform poems. I do quite a lot of that in a way that enables the children to learn some of the poems I perform. We perform the poems together, then and there. 

At that moment, we become a pop-up, instant arts community. We have something in our collective repertoire that only we have in this exact form. Yes, I’ll go away and do that with another school, but it won’t be the same. I won’t say the same words, they won’t say it in the same way. So there is a uniqueness about it. Please hang on to that idea.

I’ll also suggest something else. That school can take that poem away and do what they want with it and I can’t control what they do with it because it’s in their minds. 

There’s more. Quite often I might make some suggestions. They could do some drawings to go with it. They could video themselves performing it. They could change it in any way  they want - add lines, take away lines. They could take out some words and put in others - or they could just go off in whatever direction they wanted. Perhaps an idea from one word or phrase might grab them because it reminded them of something that happened in their lives or wish that that they could do.

So what’s that all about? That’s about seeing art as generating art. And I talked about several things there: like one art form interpreting another as with doing pictures to do with the poem, say; also, how one piece of art offers up possibilities to a person to create something of their own - maybe through its shape, sound, feel, tone, image and so on. A process that some like Pie Corbett, call ‘imitate and invent’. 

Now I said a few things there that need dwelling on. I’ll pick some of them out. Here’s one: one art form interpreting another. 

Education is very much about the status of particular kinds of knowledge or one kind of process or one kind of subject being more important than other. This affects all of us for the whole of our lives about how we see ourselves, how we see culture and how we see society. You could do a little chart right now of what education taught you about how you put ‘important stuff’ at the top, not-so-important stuff in the middle and unimportant stuff at the bottom. 

For me, education taught me that the important stuff at the top would be ‘writing essays’. I wrote essays non-stop every week from the age of 10 till the age of 23, I broke off for a few years, and then wrote some more when I did an MA. In fact, this talk is an essay too. It is one of the things I do, write essays. But then, when I look around me I can see lots of people not writing essays. Am I more important than them because I wrote loads of essays and am still writing them now? Are they less important because they go deep-sea diving or design bridges? 

And what is in my ‘not-so-important stuff’ category as taught to me by my education? In other words, what was pushed to the edge or left out entirely? Well, talking of designing and building things, I don’t think I ever designed anything once I got past nursery school, when I did spend some time designing houses with building blocks. But as we’re talking about the arts today, my education taught me that the arts are mostly what you do in your spare time or you study them in terms of knowledge about them: - how to say things about bits of them which examiners say showed that I understood them, and appreciated some principles and techniques about them. 

Of quite low or of no status at all was a sense that education should involve reflecting on one’s own identity, or culture and how that had a history, or how that fitted in with other people’s identities, culture and history. And you might guess where I’m going with that thought - that the arts are very good at helping people do just that: the arts help us situate ourselves as individuals in groups, groups in society and history. So, if you think that these kinds of reflection should be higher up the chart, then the arts are a good way for doing that. 

But let me loop back to that matter of ‘interpretation’. I described an example: making pictures to go with a poem. Correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t think the Secretary of State for Education who I mentioned earlier ever said that this would be an important thing to do. Certainly not as important as the subjunctive.

But why not? 

Let’s go on a tour: the Sistine Chapel. I’m guessing that most of you can hold in your mind at least one image from the Sistine Chapel…there’s a naked man lying on his back with his arm outstretched…and above him to one side is another man, not so naked, with a big beard, and this man is surrounded with people who look like they’re in his gang and they all seem to be flying along in what looks like a flying hut. This is regarded as one of the world’s greatest works of art. 

(As you know it’s by someone we English call Michelangelo as if he’s an Italian footballer who plays in England called Angelo, first name Michael. I only mention that because a big deal is always made out of the fact that when we ‘do’ my subject in schools - literature - it has to be  British but when we do other subjects, we let in foreigners but we often anglicise them to make them seem at least a bit English. So we get to be proud of Michelangelo.)

 He sculpted the statue of David too. These are right up at the top in status in society though the activity involved in producing such things are not ‘done’ very much in the curriculum. As Peter Kay would say, ‘what’s that all about?’

What it’s all about is that there is some kind of disjunct between some kinds of high status activity ‘out there’ (in society) and what we do in schools. What Michelangelo was doing was interpreting something: the Bible, not by writing an essay but through the arts. You know that. In fact, every stately home, art gallery, concert hall, cinema  we  go in,  is jam- packed with interpretations. Look through the list of operas, ballets, movies, paintings, sculptures and ask yourself how many of them involve interpretations and adaptations? 

Michelangelo called one of his statues David. That’s a giveaway. Not all art is so upfront about its interpretations. When Maurice Sendak produced ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ he didn’t write on the opening page, “Thanks to the Odyssey, I have created a story about a male figure who does something wrong, sails away, meets some monsters, overcomes them and comes home.”  Clearly there are levels and degrees in this interpretation game.

My point though is that when we look at a Michelangelo, we  can (if we want to) think about the relation between what we see (like the statue)  and what it’s called: ‘David’; we know what he is interpreting. Now come to school. You’re doing GCSE literature. You’re doing ‘Macbeth’. What kind of status would a Michelangelo-type interpretation of Macbeth have in relation to the status of an essay like - and I’m quoting here):

“The fantastical and grotesque witches are among the most memorable figures in the play. How does Shakespeare characterize the witches? What is their thematic significance?”

Alternatively, I’m guessing that quite a few of you in the room can quote at least a couple of lines that the witches say in ‘Macbeth’….Let me try you, ‘Double double,…’toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble’. How many of you at secondary school (not primary) got a chance to write your own song, inspired by the rhythms or images or themes of that song? 

My point is that we demote the value of doing artistic interpretations and promote the value of doing essays. 

So my question now is why? 

This raises another whole set of questions for us to do with, what are the arts actually for? what can they do for us? And why should we spend time doing it in school? and, if we have time, what might be the best ways to do the arts in schools?

So, what follows is a kind of checklist of what do the arts do for us: 

1. At the core of the idea of arts is creation. 

We’ve already had one glimpse at creation today with me invoking Michelangelo. Creation is about making something new. That’s what God is doing in the picture. Adam is new. So as we make something - poem, film, dance - there is a sense that this is in its own way unique. It can’t and won’t be exactly the same as anything else. 

Why might that be important in education? How often do people in schools get that sense that they are the authors or originators of something unique and new? Not often. And yet we know that this is a crucial part of what we call ‘self-realisation’ but also of ‘group and community realisation’ as we see and admire so much, say when we watch Gareth Malone bringing choirs coming together on TV. If we are part of something like that we get a sense that we matter. The converse of that is that great motor for depression and mental illness: that we don’t matter. 

2. But I’ve also talked today about what is in effect a kind of borrowing. When we create something new with any art form, we also borrow. If we want to be pejorative about this, we call it plagiarism, if we want to celebrate it we call it things like ‘influence’. The theorists’ word for it in literature is ‘intertextuality’, we write with what Roland Barthes called ‘the already’. If we want it to be, this can be exciting and hugely informative about the human condition. In effect, we explore what others have done in order to find a voice or idea for ourselves. If you make up a limerick, you borrow the limerick form. If you make a film in which it rains when someone is miserable, you’ve borrowed the ‘pathetic fallacy’ as it’s called. If you decide that the motive for someone to be violent towards someone is money or sexual rivalry, if you’re a young person, you may or may not know that one or two writers have done that before! You can, if you want, delve into the history of motives and that takes you to the human condition. Borrowing is good.

3. Another key feature of the arts is that they are experimental. They involve trial and error. We have a go. We see if it works. If it doesn’t we try again. If it works, we carry on. In an ideal world this should be (I would say) without a fear of failure. The only sense of failure, (I would say) should come from inside, not from a fear of failing an exam or a fear of punishment. Again, thinking of education, this is a counter-weight to an enormous amount of education which is dominated by a fear of failure. Failure is built into the system, right from when we test children in phonics when they are infants through to A-levels and degrees. The other word or words for trial and error without fear of failure is ‘free play’. I think one way to view the arts is that they can be a centre for particular kinds of free play. 

4. I’ve mentioned already that a lot of it involves interpretation…some kind of statement about I the maker (or we the makers) think about another piece of art. I also think, as I’ve said, that this enables us to look from one piece of art in one medium across to a piece of art in another. This involves many kinds of analysis, pulling aspects of one and transferring it across to another. I’ve just seen the new Kazuo Ishiguro film. This is how it’s described: 

Living is a 2022 British drama film directed by Oliver Hermanus from a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, adapted from the 1952 Japanese film Ikiru directed by Akira Kurosawa, which in turn was inspired by the 1886 Russian novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy. Set in 1953 London, it depicts a bureaucrat (played by Bill Nighy) facing a fatal illness.

So Kurosawa interpreted Tolstoy and Ishiguro has interpreted Kurosawa’s interpretation in order to show us something of how a man can’t or doesn’t change until death forces him to look on things in a different way. 

Of course Shakespeare did this all the time, grabbing stories from wherever he could in order to bring out different ways in which people try to change their circumstances. You know those plastic hair brushes that you can bend back on themselves and they reveal the gunk at the base of the spines? I often think of writers and artists doing that, bending stories back on themselves to reveal what’s going on out of sight, in people’s minds.

5. Most art-making involves reflection…some of it is thinking egotistically about what am I doing, how am I doing it, why am I doing it this way…but also reflecting on the subject that I’m creating - the person I’m painting, the object I’m looking at and so on. There is interaction then between reflection on the self and reflection on the subject. 

Thinking educationally, this is very different from what a lot of education offers which is, in a sense, the subject. We spend a lot of time learning how to keep ourselves out of the subject. When you’re supposed to be learning a double page spread on the extraction of metal from rock, no one in school is interested in what you feel about metal being in rock, or whether you’re excited to see it coming out of the rock. In fact, the chances of you seeing a bit of rock, or actually getting any metal out of a bit of rock are pretty low anyway. (I speak from experience as a parent trying to help one of my children learn one such double page spreads in his text book.) 

The arts have the potential of reversing this and, asking the opposite question: what do you think about this bit of rock? As the jargon we have it, it can be person-centred. 

6. As part of this, a lot of art-making involves empathy. It involves taking up the point of view of the ‘other’. Do we think empathy is important? If so, where do we get it from? It’s not an off-the-shelf commodity. It has to come from some kind of mind-work, in which we move from putting ourselves at the centre of the universe towards seeing ourselves as part of a group, locality, region, country or the human race as a whole. If we create anything that involves representing someone who is different from ourselves, we will have to be empathetic. 

I might say that society, civilisation and the human race depends on empathy. I don’t think that the arts are the only way in which we reach this but I think it can and should be part of it. In fact, if we create art in groups - as in schools - there is a level of empathy that goes on through the act of creating a dance, a play, a film together. Why does so-and-so move like that, how does that person’s singing express emotion? 

7. Again, a lot of art-making, involves conjuring up things, exploring what we call our imagination. At a surface level these fantasies, images, scenes may not appear to be identical or similar to what we experience but we don’t have to be psychoanalysts to know that what we imagine starts out from personal experience and often curves back in some way or another to who we are and how we think and feel. We might say we turn our feelings into phantoms. 

Why might the imagination be important in education? One way of answering that is by saying that we stand or fall by our ability to imagine. The clearest example in recent times was the imagination of the scientists who invented the Covid vaccines. I’m no expert - at least not in the vaccine side of Covid - but there was one part of the process in the invention which involved rethinking the shape and way in which the vaccine operates in the blood. 

Every day, the human race faces problems, many - perhaps all - of which will or do involve imagination in figuring out how to solve them. You might think that might put the subject or the theme or the practice of imagination in some kind of important place in education. Is it? 

Well that depends on which kind of school. 

I’ve been in some schools where it is. I don’t often go into private schools. When I do, it’s as part of a deal that they have invited in the local state schools. I am usually staggered by the kind of facilities that  have been created so that the students can indeed explore their imaginations through music, drama and art. Now why would that be? Why would schools which are designed to produce people at the top of society think that the arts have such an important role to play in their formation? 

Or should we ask another question:

 do the people who’ve created such facilities think something along these lines - I’m imaging this (!): 

“well, yes, there is the curriculum which if you succeed at it, will take you to the next level in education but actually, we can’t be 100% certain what life will be like for these students in ten, twenty, or thirty years time. They may have to be flexible, creative, imaginative human beings just as much as they have to be able to absorb and understand knowledge.’

 I’ve heard a schools minister say almost the opposite and talk instead of education serving the prime purpose of equipping the students who leave school with ‘marketability’. The job of education in other words in his terms is to enhance the value of the students’ potential labour power in the jobs that exist right now. But who knows what’s coming down the line? 

(Mind you, even with that limited functionalist approach, it does overlook that in certain places in the country and the world there are a lot of jobs in the creative industries. )

8. Carrying on with what the arts offer: The arts also often involve archaeology - exploring stuff that has happened to us. We go digging, dredging, trawling in our minds. Or alternatively things seem to pop up out of the ‘ground’ of our minds and say to our conscious selves - explain that, describe that, talk about that! The sneer about this activity is that it’s navel-gazing. My own view is that we can’t know why we do what we do, unless we look back at what we’ve done and what was done to us.  

Education itself is a big process which endures. One thing the arts in schools can do is give a space for students to reflect on where they are in this process . That is: arts in schools can help children and school students reflect along these lines:  ‘how did I respond when told to do this or that, or when I encountered this or that form of knowledge?’ 

I’m learning Yiddish. Every time I encounter a letter or word or expression I encounter my interactions with my parents, grandparents and relatives.  They had spoken it when they were children but as they only spoke it in fragments I look back at their use of Yiddish as if I’m looking through misted glass but then each piece of Yiddish the teacher says, wipes the glass and gives me a glimpse of them as children and teenagers, talking, laughing and crying in Yiddish. That’s a reflection on my learning and it helps me to learn more. (You may have noticed I reflected on my learning just then artistically - using similes ‘as if through misted glass’!) 

9. In a seemingly mundane but important way, the arts for children can also involve cognitive activities. As we create something we have to figure out how it might work either in the real world  or in the world we have created. Could my character get from there to here in that amount of time? Do people really catch pneumonia and die if they get wet and cold? This function of the arts is particularly important for y young children. 

10. We’re interested in education in abstract thought and categories or generalisations. We often think of the arts as being almost the opposite to such interests. The arts we often think of as being specific. In fact, something often goes on in the arts - whether we’re making or witnessing (reading, watching etc), is that we keep making analogies. Analogies are the root of abstract thought. We say that one thing is like another and therefore come under an abstract heading, as it were. If I’m writing, say, about being ill, I think about other people being ill, other pieces of writing about people being ill, other things that other people have said about being ill. What I’m doing here is working to the category of ‘being ill’ and filling it up with illustrations and examples of different ways of being ill. 

As I started writing in 2020 about being ill in hospital, I filled out my sense of how I was coping,  with thinking about, say, my father and how he coped with being ill. The concrete examples from myself and who I was comparing myself to,  informed the abstract or generalised notion of ‘illness’ and the subset notion, ‘how do we cope with illness’.   

We might do the same for emotions like ‘anger’ or ‘fear’. We might create a picture or a poem that expresses ‘anger’ or ‘fear’ that starts out from a very specific moment in which fear or anger is expressed but in so doing we make the analogies or comparisons with others.  This is the basis for how and why we are each in our own ways philosophers…creating categories and abstracts full of illustrations and examples that fit or don’t fit. The arts give us a space in which we can do this. 

11. I’ve already covered this in some ways, but the arts also involve a lot of exploring and investigating. On the one hand we explore and investigate ourselves - sometimes consciously, sometimes not…what kind of person am I doing this? But actually, a lot of the exploring and investigating is of the material we are using. We explore and investigate what it can do…the clay, paint, film, the human body, wood, or of course language…

12. The arts involve - as I’ve said - exploring possibilities and the possibilities of change and the possibilities for change. Throughout the creation process things change, but also we often show people, or places changing. The whole world of literature and the narrative arts (film, plays, opera, ballet) involve people changing as they interact with other people or physical and scientific changes. 

And in all this, there is a principle: in changing stuff (the stuff we use in the art-making) we change ourselves. In changing stuff, we change ourselves. 

It’s worth dwelling on this for a moment. 

I’m not against knowledge. Far from it, I’ve worshipped at the altar of knowledge all my life. I also believe that getting knowledge is fulfilling and important and helpful. However, there is another kind of knowledge that I feel that I have from art-making, creating, writing. That is: in art-making I (or on occasions ‘we’) have some power in what we are doing. And as we exercise that power, there comes a sense that I change. Perhaps that part of arts-making is what bothers people who control education. 

13. Then finally, grouping some of all these categories and ideas together, there is a sense that as we engage in art-making, we become part of something that is bigger than us and bigger that what we are making. Call it tradition, or heritage or culture, if you like. It’s the slow realisation that the thing I am making is part of what humans have been doing for thousands of years. I gave the example of Where the Wild Things Are. I talked of it as a kind of borrowing. But it’s also being part of history of what human beings do to understand the world. The Odyssey, we might imagine, helped people in its time understand something of who they are, how they cope with danger, how they realise themselves through action. Thousands of years later, Maurice Sendak, we might imagine, helps people understand something to do with emotions that get out of control, or even, perhaps, looking for love. You’ll remember perhaps that Max, the hero wants to be somewhere where someone loves him best of all. Does he find that person? You decide. 


So there were some 13 reasons why the arts are important and why we should have a place for them in all schools, so let’s finish with a thought about school.


Schools are unique. 

They bring together people of many different backgrounds, personalities, attitudes and feelings. They may be the first and last places where the people in them can create things and share them with strangers and with people who care for them (parents and carers). 

This means that: Schools can be production houses, publishing houses, theatres, concert halls, art galleries. It may be that many if not for most of the people in a school this will be the first and last time they can be the artist in those venues or publishing their work. 

This involves thinking of schools, then, being at least some of the time, having these kinds of functions. This then means that yes, there are lessons, but that some of the day is involved in arts production. Yes, I know this is what schools often do after school or in breaks but this in itself is a statement: it says that teachers should run such activities in their spare time, and that it’s not as important as the stuff that goes on in lessons for the curriculum and exams. The spare time model also denies that the arts are a human right for all. It says that they are a matter of preference only. 

I’m not sure that’s OK. In fact, I think looking at this matter through the prism of human rights is a good way of thinking of it. And with that in mind, I’ll finish with my 10 part guide to making arts education democratic.

In my ideal world pupils engaged in the arts should be able to: 

1) have a sense of ownership and control in the process of making and doing

2) have a sense of possibility, transformation and change – that the process is not closed ended with predictable, pre-planned outcomes, but that unexpected outcomes or content are possible

3) feel safe in the process, that no matter what they do, they will not be exposed to ridicule, relentless assessment and testing, fear of being wrong or making errors

4) feel the process can be individual, co-operative or both, accompanied by supportive and co-operative commentary which is safeguarded and encouraged by teachers

5) feel there is a flow between the arts, that they are not boxed off from each other according to old and fictitious boundaries and hierarchies

6) feel they are working in an environment that welcomes their home cultures, backgrounds, heritages and languages into the process with no superimposed hierarchy

7) feel that what they are making or doing matters – that the activity has status within the school and beyond

8) be encouraged and enabled to find audiences for their work whether in the same school, other schools or in the communities beyond the school gate

9) be exposed to the best practice and the best practitioners possible or available in order to see and feel other possibilities

10) be encouraged to think of the arts as including or involving investigation, invention, discovery, play and co-operation and that these happen both within the actual making and doing but also in the talk, commentary and critical dialogue that goes on around the activity itself

Across the many years I've been involved with arts education, I have seen countless projects, schemes, partnerships and programmes, on and off site, being developed, flowering and then getting phased out. Agencies have come and gone, reports have been written and re-written. To my mind, much of this seems too arbitrary, too inconsistent and too temporary.

The way to take the arts seriously is not to defend this or that art form for its own sake. Pursuing arts activities with humane and democratic principles in mind is where the benefit lies.