Sunday 10 March 2024

Ofsted try to 'do' literature and end up with pap

 This comes from the new Ofsted Subject Report for English:

There's a lot here to chew over: it's the kind of report that doesn't stoop to give evidence. So with one word (the opening word),  'Occasionally...',  the need to provide evidence for the statement that follows is swept aside. It's one of those lovely, fuzzy words that can cover any complex phenomenon. Something somewhere always happens 'occasionally'. It's unassailable and so, the writers of this report hope, can't be disproved. Clever but not clever. 

'In these schools...' - this is phoney specificity. Having said 'occasionally', the authors think they're covered to say 'these schools' as if we the readers are now holders of the evidence of which schools. In fact, not. It's rhetorical hoodwinking. 

'...focus on issues of social justice or that pupils are able to access more easily.' A long time ago, someone noticed that the thing about Metaphysical poetry is that it 'yokes' together unexpected and heterogeneous images. This is a good example. The reasons why teachers might choose books that focus on issues of social justice are not necessarily anything to do with why teachers might choose books that are easy to access. In fact, I've seen teachers (and myself with my own kids) hold our noses over issues of social justice, when we've seen a child struggling to read, really taking off with a book that was easy to read but had questionable content. Mea culpa, but yoking these two elements here suggests an ideology behind the writing of this Ofsted document. It reeks of suspicion of teachers that they are funnelling literature into classrooms that is both focussed on social justice AND trashy. Again, no evidence given, but it works as a smear. 

Line 5: 'literary merit'. What is this? Of course, here it goes undefined, as if we the readers and they, Ofsted, live in a world in which we agree as much on what is literary merit as we do over accepting the law of gravity. This too is an ideological trick. The writer scoops up the reader into an assumption that we are supposed to accept without question. In fact, the concept of 'literary merit' is highly contested. We know that critics and academics are in permanent conversation about literature, and that's part of the general conversation in the 'republic of letters'. Long may it last. But trumpeting from a postion of power and privilege that there is some kind of objective gold standard of literary merit, is not part of that conversation. It's power-play. Control through privilege. I'm not even going to try to mind-read what texts the authors have in mind. What's more significant is that they think that they can bully teachers with such a term, as if they are trying to make teachers nervous that a text they have chosen for KS3 students does NOT have literary merit. Well, there's hardly a text in the world that hasn't at some time or another been chastised by someone for not having literary merit! Remember, there were purists who once had a go at Shakespeare because his iambic pentameter was irregular and ragged! One of the least satisfactory games played by some critics and academics is to joust with texts as if it's their job to find holes and weaknesses in them. I can't think of how many times I've read criticism both in national newsapers and academic journals that seek to 'prove' that a given text is not quite as 'good' as it should be, or as not so worthy of praise as others say that it is. Even so, here this phrase hangs in the air like a critical policeman's baton. 

Then comes an extraordinary sentence: 'Schools do not consider how the study of these texts might prepare pupils for further encounters with even more complex texts, as opposed to developing their understanding of issues such as homelessness.'

'Schools...' Which schools? This is an absurd generality. I read such generalities in newspapers every day, as with  what 'men', 'women', 'children' supposedly all think or do, along with use (of course) of many racialised epithets. In these examples, we call it stereotyping but in essence, it's the same process going on here. Are the authors of this document  aware of this and are using it to bully teachers or, laughably, are they not aware of it themselves? I don't know!

The proposition of the sentence holds within it an ideology around what is the purpose of the study of English in schools: it attacks the notion that we ask students to read texts that matter to them, in the here and now (an existential argument, if you like) , and proposes that we read texts at some pre-ordained idea of 'level' in order that we might proceed to a higher level in the tomorrow. It's the 'ladder' model of literary consumption: that we move from simple to hard, from naive to complex, from accessible to texts that require prior knowledge...and so on. Note here that it's the text that is supposedly developmental not the student! It's as if a text has a pre-ordained place on the ladder, and that every student should match up to that ladder's rungs. We know that most KS3 students are at a complex stage in human and psychological development. One of the fascinating and difficult things about working with students of that age is that within any one class, there will be students who appear to be miles apart in psychological, physical, emotional and social development. Slapping on to them a mythic ladder of texts and justifying why you're reading one text on the basis that it 'leads' to the next, is to deny the very circumstances of the students doing this. But then, that is indeed the ideology being recommended here, and it's been on the agenda from the very start of the Govean revolution. The student is irrelevant. Only the text and the knowledge of the text is relevant. It goes without saying, this turns the curriculum into perfect exam-fodder. An exam tests specific aptitudes in relation to a fixed, common text. It can't empathise with the conditions of the candidate. Education is constantly entangled with the thorns of this dilemma. This report is quite clear: teach the ladder. 

'...understanding of issues such as homelessness.' This is the cry of the literary purist who has spent decades being infuriated that millions of people read in order to find out about the world. They hate what they decry as 'sociological' writing and reading. Notice the deliberate selection of 'homelessness'. It's a nice piece of bathos slotted in at the end of a sentence: a deliberate attempt to contrast the heights of 'further encounters with complex texts' with 'homelessness'. The joke is that the phrase 'further encounters with complex texts' is anything but a height. It's classic bureaucratic mincemeat. When we look at it, we can see that it's probably referring to some wonderful books, plays and poems, but because this report is evidence-less pap, we are given bureaucratic banality. And then they slug us with the horror that we might read a text about a family made homeless. What? Like Joseph and Mary? 

Further travels in the land of banality come with the last sentence when we find literature is reduced to something called challenging vocabulary and structures. Quite funny, isn't it, that on the one hand the passage trumpets the undefinable, abstract 'literary merit' and on the other gives us something as dry and dull as challenging vocabulary and structures. Just to be clear, this is TV quiz game stuff: 'hard words' and 'hard sentences'. 

Now we know what these people think reading in schools should be for. We are in pursuit of the ineffable, unfindable mirage of 'literary merit'  while doing hard words and hard structures because next year, there'll be harder words and harder structures. 

Who was it who talked of 'poverty of the imagination'. I've forgotten. But there's a lot of it going on here.