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Chris McGovern: Claims about the high quality of our teachers are so much hot air


Back in 2103 Education Secretary Michael Gove told us that “we have the best generation of teachers ever in our classrooms.” Nicky Morgan, his replacement, has also been heaping praise on the profession. “We are attracting more and more high-quality people into teaching – and keeping them in the profession,” she told us last year. Her speech at the recent Conservative Party Conference was equally triumphalist in tone. Assuming, presumably, that belief in a top quality teaching force is now uncontested, she trumpeted the arrival of a somewhat awkwardly expressed “rigour revolution” in our schools.

A wide gulf between rhetoric and reality is to be expected at party conferences. We have heard it all before, many times and from a succession of education secretaries. It seems like only yesterday, for example, that Ken Baker was lauding the achievement of the first GCSE examinations and the opening edition of the National Curriculum. Both have since been confined to the educational scrapheap. As one classroom wit observed, “If all these educational reforms were so good, how come they turned out so bad?”

There is nothing new in Nicky Morgan’s claims for a “rigour revolution”. What does appear to be new, though, is a training course in basic English grammar that is now being laid on for our “best generation of teachers ever.” Primary school teachers, apparently, are unable to cope with the task of preparing their pupils for SATs tests in grammar based on the latest version of the National Curriculum. It seems that the demise of grammar and secondary modern schools has been accompanied by an equal demise in teachers’ knowledge of the building blocks of the language.

As a result of a research project conducted in 2009, Richard Hudson, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at University College London, has told The Mail on Sunday that a “typical primary school teacher hasn’t done any grammar. Most schools abandoned teaching it completely in the 1960s.” Given that, according to the OECD, we are the only country in the developed world where grandparents outperform their grandchildren in both literacy and numeracy, none of this should come as a surprise.

What is surprising, perhaps, is that over half of undergraduates these days have so little understanding of grammar that they cannot recognise that ‘and’ is a conjunction; let alone the use of ‘in’ as a preposition or ‘technical’ as an adjective. Distinguishing between verbs and nouns also causes difficulties.

When I pointed out the problem to Nick Ferarri on LBC Radio the other morning, he seemed both dumbfounded and frustrated; as, I suspect, were many of his listeners. The truth is that many graduates these days are unable, on a reliable basis, to construct a sentence. This stands as testimony to the failure of our education system over some decades. As the litany of praise and self-congratulation has reverberated around governing party conference halls for years, the younger generation has becoming increasingly de-skilled in some key areas of the school curriculum. Knowledge deficiency in English grammar is but the tip of an iceberg of educational failure.

“We have the best generation of teachers ever.” Who are you kidding?

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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