John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the teaching of reading and spelling.
As bad weeks go, it could have been worse, and I mean for us and not Corbyn. Big mistakes and U-turns from central government – tax credits, disability allowances, compulsory academisation and the content of the spelling and grammar test – did too much to give people good reasons for voting against us, not to mention the impact of generation rent in London. The win in Peterborough, as the BBC noted, was due to changes in boundaries rather than voting, but it was a win, and we benefited from tactical voting in Scotland. Our opponent Michael Rosen, of whom more in a moment, did not succeed in generating a mass boycott of primary school tests.
Still, we did not make the progress we hoped for – either in my sister-in-law’s council at Milton Keynes, or here in Linton, Cambridgeshire, where my wife lost a district council contest despite intensive efforts from our local and constituency association, MP and MEP, and a good deal of cross-party support for her practical work in improving flood defences and village amenities, and fighting some crazy and deceitful planning applications. We did not, she said, connect with the young vote, and the LibDems did. The PM and Chancellor need to take serious notice.
The Academies fiasco, with the Secretary of State’s embarrassingly weak performances at two union conferences and the select committee, was a prime example of how not to make and present policy. As far as I can make out, nobody with any serious involvement in education was consulted at all, and its only public advocate, Jonathan Simons, was protected from comment on the Telegraph website after I skewered the idea on this one.
The government is getting too much of its advice from people with little or no understanding and practical experience, either of the processes involved in learning, or of how schools actually work. This began with the impulsive Dominic Cummings, and continues with advisers, official or not, who either know and care too little about the operation of the state system, or who have a vested interest in one point of view. Too many of these advisers know less about education than the ministers they are advising. We are lucky this week that these errors were counterbalanced by some of Labour’s.
Michael Rosen, in discussions with my alter ego, Quaestor, in The Guardian’s comments threads, emerged as an unlikely white knight for Nick Gibb. The minister had, according to a gleeful BBC, mistaken a preposition for a subordinating conjunction in the expression, “After I’d eaten my dinner”. According to Dr Rosen, who cited an unidentified professor of linguistics from Edinburgh, this was a distinction without a difference.
“After” in “after dinner” is clearly a preposition, and to suggest its function is somehow different just because an expression contains a verb is a triviality rather than an error. Indeed it is, and Dr Rosen’s thoughts on the very idea of “subordination” in English grammar are interesting. The concept derives from Latin, and the only benefit I can see from it is that it prevents us from including two main clauses in the same sentence. Sometimes the subordinate is more important than the idea in the main clause, as, perhaps, in “After the ball was over…”
Parents may not have walked out of the grammar test, but that does not mean they approved of it. I’ve been helping children prepare for it, and some of the ideas, notably the subjunctive and fronted adverbial – or starter, as in “Early one morning, just as the sun was rising” – are baffling and unnecessary. “Do children really need all of this grammar?” was one question from a very well-informed parent, and we can be sure that nearly every other parent was thinking the same thing.
The source of advice in this case was highly informed about linguistics, but not at all about education, and did not understand the need to present ideas clearly to children, in terms that were easy for them to understand. Terms like fronted adverbial bring butchery, rather than beauty, to the teaching of English, and we need something more transparent and helpful.
Michael Rosen said, at the end of our discussion, that, “There are some right answers. There are some wrong answers. There are some answers that are neither right nor wrong.” I agree and next year’s test should reflect this.