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Michael Gove has announced that English 11-year-olds will sit a grammar test. Many with whom I would naturally stand in any conflict involving Gove have objected on the grounds that such an approach will narrow teaching and lead to “teaching to the test”.
I disagree with many of Gove’s reasons for this initiative. Test results only confirm the obvious, that the schools with the wealthiest parents produce the highest-performing children. It is part of Gove’s “blame-the- teachers” rhetoric. It ignores other reasons why many young people have poor language skills. It proposes that all children be given the same test irrespective of where they are and what they might reasonably achieve. Nonetheless, I bridle at those who dismiss the teaching of grammar as formulaic and creativity-stifling.
It is clarity and accuracy that have been lost by the retreat from grammar. I recently reviewed a book by two respected academics who could not differentiate between who and which: “The group who had been most alarmed were …”
Children in the private sector are more likely to have been taught English grammar, but also more likely to have been taught classics and thus had their grammatical skills reinforced. Their subsequent articulacy and confidence should surely be a universal right.
My wife started primary in the mid-1960s and received almost no grammar teaching. She writes excellently and accurately but she was fortunate. She came from a highly literate household, read well and was academically committed.
Across the secondary sector, grammar was taught by a minority of teachers; it was abandoned even more thoroughly in the primary sector, although even there a few brave souls persisted.
Today, however, Gove’s biggest problem may be that a generation with little formal instruction in grammar will hardly provide many teachers with the skills to deliver it.
I recently attended my younger daughter’s graduation at the University of Glasgow. An award was made to a member of staff who had developed basic writing skills courses for undergraduates without these skills. She surely deserved the award but it poses a troubling question: why are young people who have achieved the entry qualifications for as prestigious a university as Glasgow lacking such writing skills?
Gove’s motives and methods are dubious. The value of a knowledge of grammar as the base from which to develop higher-order writing skills is not. Would Mr Russell care to propose a better initiative to reinvigorate grammar teaching in Scotland?
The above article was first published in the Times Educational Supplement Scotland on 3 August 2012:

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