English for the Few or English for the Many?

by Valerie Coultas (Kingston University)


There is nothing very new in Michael Gove’s culturally elitist attitudes to English teaching and the comprehensive ideal. He joins a long line of those who have always been opposed to the basic principles of comprehensive education and democratic ideas about language and learning.

As Akpenye (2013) makes clear, the campaign against the comprehensive ideal has always been virulent. The ‘child centred approach’ to English teaching in comprehensive schools has come under particular attack. As long ago as 1969 a group of Conservative thinkers wrote a series of pamphlets, known as the Black Papers, that hit back hard against the key elements of what, for example, John Marenbon (1987,1994) dubbed ‘the new orthodoxy’. The ideas in these papers constituted a full frontal attack on the ideas of progressive education and child-centred English teachers who, they suggested, were too concerned with ideas of personal growth. Instead, this group of Conservative thinkers argued that English was about teaching a body of knowledge, which involved re-establishing the pre-eminence of the English Literary Heritage and the explicit teaching of grammar and Standard English. They also began to establish the importance of ‘standards’ by arguing that standards would only be maintained in schools if they were clearly and publicly defined, hence the need for tests and league tables. These ideas influenced both major political parties and began to put Labour on the defensive in relation to comprehensive ideals.

The Coalition’s educational polices stand on the shoulders of this attack on the comprehensive ideal and in this article I will identify some themes of the right’s counter offensive against inclusive approaches to English teaching, explore some of the limitations of these ideas and begin to suggest how English might be promoted as a subject for all. 

[Complete article: English for the Few or for the Many?]

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