Matthew Wilson

Written by Matthew Wilson

Matthew Wilson works as an English teacher in a Scottish secondary school. He likes to blog about education, politics, economics and books. He thinks that schools have to change and adapt themselves more to the needs of the pupil so that people can develop the talents they have, in their own way.

Tackling illiteracy

I read The Telegraph because I disagree with most things in it. It makes me think. But just because I disagree with most of the views and the prescriptions offered by the papers and its commentators, doesn’t mean that they never raise an important issue or have a point. A recent article by Reverend Dr Peter Mullen did make me think.

In the article he claims that the illiteracy rates in schools are close to child abuse. I wouldn’t condone wild and hurtful statements like this one. And for many people a statement like that would mean reading no further. But, I did read on. The article cites the issue of many primary school children entering secondary unable to read and write to a competent level.  Peter Mullen claims, ‘the education department admits that more than four out of ten children leave school, after 11 years of state education, unable to read and write properly’. Even, if his figures are not wholly accurate, my own experience and national statistics would suggest that they are not far off. Many reports will conclude an illiteracy rate of 20%, after secondary education.

Where has it all gone wrong? Peter Mullen rejects the ‘child deprivation’ explanation. He places blame on poor teaching methodologies and incompetent teachers. His reasoning being his own impoverished background in Leeds. His impoverished class had ‘few that were backward in reading’ and by ‘the age of nine we knew all the parts of speech and could parse sentences, and at eleven we embarked on clause analysis’. Impressive, if true. And I have no reason to doubt him.

I agree with Peter Mullen on an important point. Grammar is a crucial part of schooling. Knowledge of grammar has allowed many people from impoverished backgrounds to move in to the highest echelons of society without feeling the inferiority of their education. Labour’s first prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, was one of them. Grammar teaching’s decline has, in my view, damaged social mobility and the meritocratic society we’re supposed to live in.

Where Peter Mullen’s argument falls down for me, is that this idyll of parsing (identifying types of words) in the morning and reading Dickens in the afternoon, at age seven, was supported by an extremely authoritarian culture and the belt. The Belt…which actually is child abuse.

Working as a teacher, I don’t want the belt back, under any circumstances. But I would like grammar back. If it does come back, it’ll have to come back to smaller classes and be taught by new methods. Pupils are going to struggle to sit down with a grammar book and work through it, at least in the beginning. However, starting to teach grammar again, in a consistent and rigorous way, in primaries, would be the first step to tackling our shocking illiteracy rates.

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2 Responses to Tackling illiteracy

  1. Stewart MacDonald says:

    The situation is at least as bad in Sydney. One writer to the daily broadsheet was so grateful for having taken Latin, as it gave him a previously unknown understanding of grammar principles. Unfortunately, very few people learn Latin.

  2. Matthew Wilson Matthew Wilson says:

    In Australia there’s at least one programme, state sponsored, that is trying to teach grammar to school children. It was fellow-countryman Clive James who helped me realise the importance of grammar.

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