An open letter to Alan Milburn | Frank Cottrell Boyce
Dear Alan Milburn
Congratulations on your appointment as Social Mobility supremo. Like you I’m a member of that blessed generation who benefitted from the unparalleled social mobility of the 1960s. The distance from my present address to the block of flats in which I was born is three or four miles by road, several light years by socio-economic indicators. I didn’t have to work that hard to get where I am. I didn’t study by candlelight in a garret after a twelve hour shift in the bottle blacking plant. The road was long but it was well signposted, brightly lit, and if it ever did go uphill, there was usually someone there to cheer me on. Now when I visit the schools in the area where I grew up, I find myself wondering whether anyone will ever walk that road again.
I’m a children’s writer. I won the Carnegie Medal in 2005. The part of the job I love most is visiting schools reading to children. I’ve done this all over the country and up and down the social scale. I’ve been extremely impressed by the work your government has done in raising literacy levels. You’ve poured willpower, money and creativity into making our children competent readers. Statistically it’s all paid off. And yet we’re all worried.
The thing is, competence in reading is not enough. There needs to be pleasure too. The UNESCO report ‘Gender, Context and Reading’ (Scientific Studies of Reading, Volume 10 if you’re interested), pointed out the crucial importance of reading for pleasure in social mobility and educational success. I don’t want to detain you with a discussion of why the pleasure is important. But I know that when my Dad took me down the park, with a flyway, he did not say, “Right, son, I’m going to teach you some basic ball skills, work on general fitness and spatial awareness and if you’re really good, then in a few years' time, we’ll have a game of footie.” No, he played with me till I liked it enough to want to build those skills. Who knows? The point is that it’s as important to communicate the pleasure as it is to pass on the skills.
Whenever I address parents, I tell them that I know they want their best for their kids. I know that they’re prepared to move house, go private, hire tutors to do their best for them. But none of those things, not all of them added together, will be as effective as simply reading to them, reading with them, reading what they read, letting them see you read.
We may seem competent, but by the end of next century there will be new deserts, new ruins.
I’m sure you’re going to tell me that schools have all kinds of initiatives to pass on the pleasure. I know that. Whenever I make an author visit, I am one of those initiatives. Proud to be so.
But when I visit many schools, I see a big, fat, glaring, expensive anti-reading for pleasure signal. It stands where the library used to stand and it’s called The Learning Resource Centre. ‘Learning Resource’ is a lovely phrase if you want to describe a paper clip perhaps, a stapler, a photocopier, or Google Earth. A book, however, should be something a bit more special than that. The distilled essence of a human soul, perhaps. Or a box of fun.
You may think I’m quibbling about words here. But we are talking about reading. So words are important. Also, we’re not just talking about words. To turn your library into a learning resource centre, you generally have to chuck out a bunch of valuable, durable assets – books – and replace them with sub-prime computers which will quickly date. Now I have nothing against computers. I’m typing this on a Mac Air for which I harbour feelings little short of erotic. But, as my own daughter pointed out when this happened in her school – every single kid in the school, almost without exception, has access to computers (better computers) at home. Almost none of the other children in her school has access to books in any meaningful way at home.
I have heard teachers talk about how books can’t compete with computers, how libraries have to be sexed up to keep children’s attention. I answer that by going back to the pleasure principle. A book on a shelf may not be that sexy, but a book that’s being read, discussed, brought to life by teachers or parents is frankly unbeatable.
More importantly, the words, ‘Learning Resource Centre’ and the presence of those functional, no-fun computers disconnect reading from the world of pleasure, from the world at all. The library in my school was called The Library, just like the Central Library in the city centre, where I saw my first students, my first politicos, where I went to watch girls. I had the confidence to go there, and breathe all that promising new world, because I already knew what a library was and how it worked. There was a library in my school, just as there was a library in Alexandria, in London, wherever I would go. It wasn’t about competence, it was about pleasure, and the challenges that pleasure brings. ‘Learning Resource Centre’ is a euphemism from the same chilly lexicon as ‘downsizing’ and ‘collateral damage’. It means, “We’ve given up. We are not a school now, we’re a crèche.”
The year I won the Carnegie, my MP was among the first to congratulate me. Part of the prize was a bequest to a library of my chosing. I was thinking about my local library. She said no. She told me that Waterloo – the Liverpool suburb – was twinned with Waterloo in Sierra Leone – a small African town devastated by the civil war. She had just met the local mayor and had asked him what she could do for him, thinking he would ask for a health centre, a school, cash. He said, “What we’d really like is a library.” So often when people ask for help, they ask for the worst of us. They ask for weapons or dodgy large scale engineering projects. This man asked for the best of us. And where is the best of us? It’s in the library.
Except if you live in a school which has changed its library to an LRC – in that case, the best of us is ... in the skip.
What change captain? | Phil Beadle
Reading for meaning. Read those three words again: ‘reading for meaning’. What do they mean?
I am, as I've said, merely competent. But in an age of incompetence, that makes me extraordinary.
Pilfering, toothbrush, rat, snaffle, cudgeling, bruises, slam-dunk, cockney. Read those eight words again. What do they mean?
You’re right, of course: as a combination of words they don’t mean anything at all. But as you scanned your peepers across them you will have attempted to decode them, to see if you could detect meaning in the sequence. My four-year-old son did the same thing when presented with the same sentence. “They don’t mean anything Dad. They are stupid.” For me, the concept of ‘reading for meaning’ is crassly tautological. Once we’ve grasped the phonic code all reading is reading for meaning.
It’s half thought out titles like this, indicative of a certain intellectual flabbiness, that have caused me, historically, to give QCA’s guidance as to what we should be covering in lessons a bit of a wide berth. I’ve always seen the job as infinitely simple in its intent. We (English teachers) have a responsibility to teach children how to communicate well, particularly to focus on the difficult task of teaching them how to write decent prose.
Having been given reason by Teachit to have a look at the new Programme of Study, I see nothing in it that will make me change either my practice or my opinion. It is full of the usual wafery verbiage renamed. Kids are still presented with the stultifying, cough, ‘opportunity’ to study Bunyan, Congreve or Henry Vaughan (who he?), and reading is still for meaning.
The ‘Competence’ section includes the guidance that, at key stage three, kids should be ‘Reading and understanding a range of texts, and responding appropriately’. I shall be wilfully disobeying this guidance on a daily basis. An appropriate response is, for me, worth a level four or five and a stifled yawn. Sometimes an inappropriate response is worth five times an appropriate one, and any individual who uses the word appropriate on a regular basis is a drab and dull-minded fascist. What then is the organisation that seeks to instill this word as a keystone of what we teach children in the one subject in which a teacher is able to sow the seeds of sedition and rebellion? (Note, you don’t have to respond appropriately any more once you get to year ten).
Introducing the notion of competence to English lessons is a borderline useful idea, but looking at the curriculum in order to write this piece is the first, the last and the only time I will be looking it. I’ll be getting back to teaching kids how to speak and write as well as they can. What change captain? I see no change.
To competence and beyond | Geoff Barton
I’ve always sensed something a bit grudging about the idea of ‘competence,’ a feeling of ‘good enough but not brilliant’. Look at the way the national curriculum for English puts it:
Competence in reading, writing and speaking and listening enables pupils to be successful and engage with the world beyond the classroom. They are able to communicate effectively and function in a wide range of situations and contexts.
Those words ‘effectively’ and ‘function’ have something of a dampening effect, don’t you think?
I shall state silences more competently than ever a better man spangled the butterflies of vertigo.
Don’t we want to set our sights higher, with our students communicating ‘skilfully’ or ‘expertly’ and not just functioning but ‘succeeding’ or ‘excelling’ in life?
This all seems very relevant because this year I’m teaching two Year 10 and Year 11 groups a kind of prototype functional skills course. In addition to their normal English and Maths lessons, I’m seeing whether we can make a real impact on their numeracy and literacy skills with a variety of home-grown approaches.
It means that I’m testing out lots of ideas to try and make the nuts and bolts of English relevant and engaging, and – a thousand miles outside my own comfort zone – I’m doing the same with numeracy, an area in which my own competence seems a little more fragile.
What strikes me with both groups is just how closely their competence is wrapped up with their self-esteem. Some students, as soon as you give them a railway timetable to scan, or a leaflet to skim, or some statistics to average out, simply panic. ‘I can’t do it,’ they’ll say, or they’ll give up seconds into the task.
It’s a reminder of something Malcolm Gladwell hints at in his new book Outliers (Allen Lane). In it he studies geniuses – the musicians, athletes and academics whose abilities seem to us mere mortals unreachable. None of us, we tell ourselves could play the piano, or run, or think like that.
And whilst he doesn’t deny the shimmering brilliance of geniuses, his research does reveal something comforting. These people practise. A lot. The real stars – the outliers who leave us all standing, gazing at their vapour trail in open-mouthed amazement – these will have put in 10,000 hours.
Endless, repetitive, habit-forming practice – Gladwell shows that this is at the heart of moving beyond mere competence into stunning, apparently effortless brilliance.
Striving for competence | Gareth Calway
Photo: John Hedgecoe
'When I use a word,' as Humpty Dumpty says in Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, 'it means just what I choose it to mean.' Never has the word ‘competence’ had such a cachet. Key concept no. 1 in the new national curriculum. The word used to carry connotations of bare attainment. ‘Competent, nothing special.’ No longer! I wonder if schools will now be changing their mottos from ‘Striving for excellence’ to the (previously subversive) ‘Striving for competence’.
Obscurity and competence - that is the life that is best worth living.
And in fact, this is absolutely right. As always with guidance documents, dizzy heights of human attainment are described – as a glance at any oracy criteria level descriptors will bear out. Most of us would vote for a politician capable of being ‘competent’ in the way described– ‘clear, coherent and accurate in spoken and written communication’. President Obama is ‘competent’ in those terms so far - and long may he continue to be so.
But there have been presidents whose very lack of clarity, coherence or accuracy in response to questions or challenges is the only thing that could save them. There have, beshrew my soul, even been education ministers, advisers, SATs exam rationales and guidance documents lacking not just clarity, coherence or accuracy but all three at once.
I am sorry to say that I may even have ‘delivered’ (if that ridiculous postal term is still the ‘right’ one) material in classrooms that is none of these too. And yes, I confess, the enthusiasm of my own teaching may sometimes have parted company with ‘clear, coherent and accurate’. It’s easier said than done.
Communication – being an interpersonal function – is a complicated and even messy business. Human beings and their contexts are complex. I hope every one of my career-estimate 50,000 reports to parents was clear, coherent and accurate – despite all the pressures to fudge meanings. I have certainly read teachers’ reports that failed one or more of these criteria. Yet children barely into their teens are being assessed on a human attainment even such Renaissance educators/utopians as Castiglione and Erasmus revered. And we call it ‘competence’! (A ‘competence’ for them was enough money to live on, a practical and necessary but not profound matter.)
I am not questioning the need for ‘competence’ as itemised in this key concept. It is a lifelong self-actualising process and its place at the head of the curriculum is most appropriate.
I am emphasising that teaching, for example, the ability to ‘respond appropriately’ to a range of texts and ‘being adaptable in a widening range of familiar and unfamiliar contexts within the classroom and beyond’ is an immense responsibility, requiring a Plato rather than a postman. Education at a profound level, not some ‘join the dots’ dismissiveness that the word – in comparison to its more obviously sophisticated ‘C’ neighbours – might attract.
In fact I predict that the old insurance company joke, ‘He is an average employee with flashes of competence’, will be making its comeback soon!
Gareth Calway is a NATE consultant on creative writing
Competence through AfL | Francis Gilbert
When I first saw the word 'competence' stuck into the new English National Curriculum last summer, my heart descended into the abyss. Oh no, I thought, here we go again; yet more injunctions to give lots of boring grammar lessons which the pupils don't understand. However, a closer examination of the rubric makes me think the new NC is a bit more enlightened than that.
As I have been re-devising schemes of work to meet these 'competences', I have found the best way of addressing them is through rejigging our redrafting and Assessment for Learning (AfL) policies. All the research and my own experience has made me realise that it is only by asking pupils to improve their own work, to edit it, to proofread it properly, that they learn about the key competences: the conventions of written language, adapting texts for different contexts, formality and informality. This is best taught through AfL activities.
If this work seems so threatening, this is because it isn't simply eccentric or strange, but competent, rigorously argued, and carrying conviction.
Let me illustrate this with some small examples. At the beginning of my recent lessons, I have been giving pupils small 'unpunctuated' or deliberately 'ungrammatical' passages from the text they will study in the lesson and have asked them to punctuate it; the passage is photocopied so they don't waste time copying it. It is an excellent way of dealing with rowdy classes – I hand them the exercise the moment they enter the room. It's not exactly food for the soul, but I always follow it up by asking them to look at the original text and mark each other's work, while thinking about the effect of the punctuation. Crucially and more spiritually, I try to make pupils see that punctuation is there to create a sense of rhythm, to draw attention to key words, to organise thought and description on the page. The same exercise works well on the interactive whiteboard; you simply ask selected pupils to come up and punctuate the relevant passage and turn the whole thing into a game show.
AfL is great here. I photocopy my extracts of pupils' work, highlighting when they have used language successfully, and we discuss, as a class and in small groups, what makes successful writing. Above all, what I am looking for in pupils' writing is 'flair'; I snatch at even tiny sentences or clauses that show imagination and originality and show them to the whole class. We will then have a discussion about the effective deployment of a particular language feature. I then insist that all pupils have a go writing a sentence using that particular feature on a whiteboard tablet. They hold up their whiteboard above their head and I can see who's learnt the technique and who hasn't -- and adapt my lesson accordingly. I was observed doing this simple exercise and attained a '1' (or outstanding!) for the lesson because of it.
There is an irony that it is only when you stress pupils use language with 'flair' that they begin to use it competently. There is something rather leaden about the phrase 'competence'; language needs to be lively, bouncy, entrancing if it is going to be truly effective.
Creating an oral portfolio | Valerie Coultas
Most children are highly ‘competent’ users of spoken language. In fact the rich variety of pupil voices is perhaps the most important resource in any classroom.
The following stages, first designed by the National Oracy Project (NOP), will guarantee that a classroom teacher has evidence of pupils’ competence in spoken English. The example below focuses on a Media unit at KS3 but the method could be applied to any key stage.
The most striking aspect of linguistic competence is what we may call the ‘creativity of language', that is, the speaker’s ability to produce new sentences.
The pupils might be asked to add a new character in a favourite TV programme such as the Family Guy. They would first view the introduction to the programme together and discuss one of the following: colour; camera; character; sound or story. This activity could be carried out as a jigsaw with each group reporting back on their topic. This would encourage reader response, build on prior knowledge, help to fill in knowledge gaps and promote whole class discussion. It might also be necessary to show an episode and study this with the group.
The pupils could then work in pairs to create a new character, decide exactly when and how that character would arrive in the sitcom and write a short script or storyboard of the moment when they first arrive. They could draw sketches of their new character and describe them in a commentary.
The teacher would tell them that a TV script writer was coming to judge their ideas and ask them to prepare a formal presentation. A real scriptwriter could be invited; if not, the class teacher or another teacher could arrive in role. The teacher could prepare the students for the presentation by discussing formal and informal language and the different registers we adopt for different situations. The teacher’s role is to provide all the students with the opportunity to succeed on such an occasion.
The teacher should observe the students working independently to prepare their treatments. The teacher should pick one or two groups to focus on. One group could go into a separate room and record their conversation so that it can be listened to after the lesson. (Groups can be chosen on a carousel basis for this over the year.)
The teacher has already begun to record the exploratory talk but now she needs to record the presentational talk at the final session. This can range from a simple note taking exercise by the teacher, a colleague, a pupil or an audio or visual recording/transcription.
4: Pupil reflection and evaluation
The notes or the recording provide the basis for students to consider how well they engaged the audience, their use of language, the effectiveness of their body language, tone of voice, pace of delivery and where they might want to improve. They could be asked to record these reflections in a talk diary or an oral portfolio. The students will have engaged to some degree with all four of the areas of competence listed in the new programme of study.
5: Making judgements/reporting
The teacher then has the evidence to make judgements if necessary. These will be even better when the teacher has oral portfolios with a range of tasks completed and video examples from other colleagues to make comparisons with.
All these stages take time and careful planning but the rewards can be enormous. Creating an oral portfolio will help the teacher focus on the pupil: so time should be made for oracy.
Building on communication and independence skills for pupils with SEN | Andrew Buckton
Competence is fundamentally all about using language to communicate effectively. For many pupils with Special Educational Needs this also means using language to communicate as independently as possible. In addition, a much overlooked ability – that of being able to generalise a skill – also has to be thrown into the mix. So here we have a grand aim: to develop pupils’ communication skills so that they can communicate in different contexts as independently as possible!
I have no idols. I admire work, dedication and competence.
The big ‘how on earth do we help pupils with this?’ raises its head at this point and we need to look at why most people ‘just pick it up naturally’. The reason most of us cotton on to using language appropriately in different social contexts is that we are immersed from the earliest age in a huge variety of situations: families, nursery schools, playgroups, friendship groups, other groups such as Sunday school or clubs, not to mention school itself. Peer to peer language develops and is different from child to headteacher (for most of us).
But for many children with SEN, especially if they have more profound difficulties and / or Autistic Spectrum disorders, their social experiences may have been more limited and they may well find being able to use and generalise language very challenging.
For this reason, the more real life opportunities we can give them, the better.
At my school, we have recently set up a community café. At first we recognised the benefits to the pupils for things such as life skills and independent skills in learning to prepare food in a kitchen. Yet the more we run the café, the more we realise the benefits of language opportunities. Pupils have learned the language for serving the public (“Good morning. What would you like?”). They are using the language of the work place (“Hurry up with that coffee for table 9, Sam”) and in relating to a boss (“How do I work this bill out?”).
Sue Hackman, the National Director for the Secondary National Strategy, has said that competence is ‘the missing piece of the jigsaw: the ability to apply our knowledge, skills and understandings’. Given any social real life context, it certainly seems possible to support our learners in creating a clear picture.
What competence means in English | Harry Dodds
Achieving competence in English isn’t just about being able to tick boxes. It’s about having the confidence to take your existing skills and to use and develop them in new contexts. Consider two possible illustrative analogies.
The obvious analogy is that of the stepladder. You take a step onto the first rung of skills and find there the support to move to the second rung, and so on. There’s truth in that in the early stages of language development but, by the time pupils have reached secondary level, I think it’s become less useful as a model, mostly because it lures you into thinking that learning in English is sequential. I’ll grant that it’s easy to see apparent sequences in some areas of skills development. You might argue that the analytical and critical skills needed for GCSE Lit, say, are the foundations on which you build for success at A Level and beyond – but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Old-fashioned textbooks were organised like this, and gave the appearance of logic, structure and progression – very appealing to the tidy-minded and unimaginative, but not actually reflective of the ways in which an individual’s language develops. Language skills grow as a result of having to meet new and different demands.
These are days when no one should rely unduly on his 'competence'. Strength lies in improvisation. All the decisive blows are struck left-handed.
The second analogy, which I prefer because it makes for more interesting teaching and for more personalised learning, involves representing developing competence in English in terms of the shapes made by liquid spreading over a flattish surface, the perimeter marking the individual’s territory of linguistic competence. It can take off in unpredictable directions, but it will continue to expand for as long as the liquid is added. It becomes the teacher’s job to offer experience in as many new and different contexts as possible, keeping up the flow.
It’s still necessary to be rigorous – I’m not proposing a set of random activities. Take Entitlement, Expectation, and Extension as guiding principles.
The National Curriculum is a document of entitlement, so it’s a good starting point. It’s supplemented by the Framework, the triplets and so on. However, all these documents need some mediation and focus to match individual needs, as well as existing strengths and skills. The emphasis should be on developing the pupil’s ability to move, in speech and in writing, between a growing variety of versions and uses of English, according to the requirements of context. Because we work with individual learners, every learner's entitlement will become unique, though with a guaranteed common core.
We have both to express our own expectations of our students and at the same time encourage them to raise their own expectations. The key question, always, is 'How do we move from where we are to the next stage, or to a new stage?' That's a question for teacher and for learner alike, and it should be the basis of a learning dialogue.
As Sue Hackman said at the launch of 'Taking English forward: the four Cs':
“Competence in English implies a personal power to deploy language effectively. It moves us from knowing to know-how; from ability to capability; from experience to expertise.”
It’s the movement that’s important. Competence is dynamic, and never fully achieved. Our job is to maximise the experience our pupils have of language, in as many different ways as possible.