Michael Gove's criticism of Simon Gibbons, "the man in charge of the National Association for the Teaching of English," (NATE) for arguing that it is "oppressive to teach children grammar", touched a nerve in a professional association that is not quite like the others. Most began with a coming together of teachers with a shared interest in their subject, but no particular point of view beyond that. NATE was founded in the mid nineteen-sixties to roll out ideas about English teaching developed by what Dr Mary Bousted has described as the "London School", whose key idea was that English teaching should be based on personal growth and on the language pupils brought from home, rather than on standard English.
For the past fifty years or so, NATE has been dedicated to establishing this view as the norm, and has managed to insert it into much of the national curriculum, teacher training, tests and examinations. Mr Gibbons is in charge of King's College's postgraduate teaching certificate, and carries the torch as secretary of the London Association for the Teaching of English (LATE).
Last year's NATE conference was sponsored by the examining board AQA, and former NATE members and officials had predominant positions in English in the previous government's qualifications and curriculum authority . Mr Robbins' doctoral study is the history of LATE. Writing theses about their own organisation is a nice additional step towards legitimising it. In the early nineties, NATE infiltrated and took over the previously neutral United Kingdom Reading Association, changed its name to the UK Literacy Association, and turned it into a fellow-traveller for NATE's ideology. Our national discussion of reading has suffered considerably as a result.
LATE started with a valid point – English teaching was not working for a large number of pupils. These mostly started from less literate home backgrounds, and their language was described by Basil Bernstein, a contemporary of the founders, as "restricted code". An American linguist, Labov, had argued, in The Logic of Non-Standard English, that this did not mean that these people were less intelligent, as the system at the time tended to assume, and his work was taken up with enthusiasm by the Marxist Professor Harold Rosen, one of the founders of LATE, who asked "Where is the British Labov?"
Professor Rosen's PhD thesis, incidentally, had shown that his sample of pupils were making no progress in their writing during their two final years in school. He used an ingenious idea for analysing writing, the "minimal terminable unit" – that is, something that would have been a sentence had the pupil known how to insert a full stop. This is classic NATE strategy – create new and fancy-sounding terminology, analyse your material in its terms, and criticise as ignorant those who don't accept it. In this case, the exercise could more easily be seen as a cover-up for children's poor understanding of punctuation.
Which brings us to the crux of the issue. We know that early childhood is not a level playing field. Children whose parents value education have plenty of stories, are encouraged to ask questions, and learn to use language to make their meaning clear. The gap between their experience and that of children whose parents do not do these things – which depend on attitudes rather than money – is significant by the age of six months and runs into millions of words by the time children are three. Left to proceed at their own pace, to work out phonics for themselves, to write and spell as they choose, they will fail at school, as they are at present, and the Left can blame it on capitalism.
This is the cycle that Conservatives have started to break, and we need to be clear that our approach is a fundamental reform and not, as our opponents argue, a return to the past. Grammar, for example, needs to be taught in clear terms that children can understand, and not tied up with over-elaborate terminology. Some misunderstandings have been with us for decades.
Verb, for example, is the single most important grammatical term. Most of us have been taught that a verb is "a doing word", and yet the most frequent verbs, to be and to have, don't actually do anything. The Chinese call these "linking verbs" and the French "verbs of state". Tell children that a verb is a doing word, and they won't know that am is a verb. If we tell them that every sentence needs a verb, we rule out some of Dickens' most powerful sentences. If we tell them that most verbs do things, and that nearly every sentence needs a verb, we give them accurate guidance. I've written a more detailed paper on these issues here.
In the speech criticised by Michael Gove, Mr Gibbons talks of the government "putting a gun to the head of teachers who want to take risks", and refers to "a reductive primary curriculum dominated by phonics, spelling, grammar and standard English". This is both a deliberate misrepresentation of what the primary curriculum actually says – there is plenty in it about enjoying books, stories and creativity – and a return to the fundamental error on which NATE was founded.
"Standard" is a term that does not do justice to the full range of formal English, written and spoken. But non-standard English as advocated by Labov, and encouraged by NATE under the guise of diversity, does not equip children with the literacy required to succeed in their schoolwork, with the language needed to understand the science and technology that are at the heart of modern society, or with the grammatical understanding and vocabulary required for participation in a modern democracy. It is not, therefore, a proper basis for education. The association itself, with classic Leftist elitism, uses impeccable standard English. It is blind to the fact that its policies have the effect of denying access to this key skill to the bulk of the population, and so perpetuate inequality. Michael Gove has seen and understood this. NATE's time is up.