Sunday 10 June 2012

By heart: Gove and poetry

I'm probably jumping the gun a bit here, but the press is full this weekend with accounts of what is anticipated to appear in the new guidelines for Primary English. Presumably, someone at the DfE did a legal leak, as it were.

What seems to be coming up is a requirement that all primary children from the age of 5 should learn poetry by heart.

Here are my observations:

1. It's very easy to tell teachers and children what they must do. You or I could sit in an office and deliver instructions. What's much harder is to provide good intellectual justifications for the instructions, good evidence that there is any reason for doing x rather than y and indeed whether you, the person giving the instructions is someone who benefited from being on the receiving end of such instructions, or whether instructions from government on what should go on in the curriculum is the best way to run education.

2. So, if someone on high is saying that all children will learn poems off by heart, then I think we should be given the space to ask why. At the moment, there are no structures for teachers - let alone parents and children - ever to make this a debate. We are back in government diktat land. Please note: when three ex-children's laureates were in discussion with Nick Gibb a few weeks ago, he made quite clear that the government was not willing to issue a requirement for a schools to develop a 'policy' on 'reading for enjoyment' (as recommended in the most recent Ofsted report on English 'Moving English Forward') because 'we are trying to get away from asking schools to have policies on everything'. So we have a diktat to learn poems off by heart, but schools shouldn't be required to develop policies of their own on reading for enjoyment. Logical? Rational? Thought out? Nope.

3. The government  have put in place a system of teaching to decode (ie sound out letters and words accurately) - 'synthetic phonics'. The slogan that is being used about how this is to be done is 'first, fast and only'. This is being taken quite literally in some schools as meaning that only texts that come within the synthetic phonics schemes should be put in front of children who are in the process of  'learning to read'. However, the new Gove diktat on poetry rather looks as if poems will have to be put in front of children of this age too. Very few poems - unless they've been written to order - fit a purely synthetic phonic language-use. In other words, at the heart of this Gove idea, there is some kind of contradiction. We shall just have to see how they get out of that particular neck-lock. Or, as I suspect, they will pretend it's not a contradiction.

4. I have nothing in principle against children learning poems off by heart. My experience of going round schools is that children often know my poems better than me. They seem to have chosen how to do that. I also perform in such a way that the youngest children learn many of the poems as I perform them. I do them once - with actions - and then again (when it feels right) and they join in. Schools have chosen to do this. Many are doing it anyway. Standby for insulting nonsense from central government talking as if teachers aren't doing what they are doing anyway.

5. 'When it feels right' - is of course one of those fuzzy phrases much hated by people issuing diktats from government offices and yet it is at the heart of good teaching. I have been co-running poetry courses for teachers at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education for several years (do enrol for next  year's course!) - and the teachers usually discover that simply by reading poems regularly, letting the children choose poems to hear read, to read to themselves, to read out loud, to write down in their books - and of course to write themselves - results in the children knowing many poems off by heart.

6. I detect in the latest Gove plan - as implied and reported - is what I'll call the itch to instruct and dictate to teachers and children because it will do them good, that teachers and children themselves can't or shouldn't choose, investigate and discover what is suitable and worthwhile. It will of course be interesting to see if the Gove 'by heart' scheme will involve producing a list of approved poems, in which case, we will have to ask, how was this list chosen, by whom and why.