The politics of language and prejudice: How the New Primary Curriculum for English is outdated

Matt Carmichael argues that Conservative policy regarding language tests in English is outdated. The social attitudes which underpin the tests are divisive and dangerous and have the effect of promoting prejudice.


The English curriculum – 50 years out of date? Credit: theirhistory CC BY NC SA 2.0

As an English teacher, I thought the 2016 sample SATs paper for end of primary school grammar would make a good revision task for my Sixth Form English Language classes. A strong A Level candidate should be able to identify a relative clause, or rewrite a sentence in the passive voice (I’ve changed their names).

Interestingly my students’ percentage scores were roughly in line with what they’d need at A Level to get their predicted grades. Naomi is predicted a C and she got 65%. Whilst doing the test she kept saying “That’s horrible!” After marking she said: “It made me feel stupid. I feel so sorry for all the kids that have to do it.” Shellie agreed. “They’re going to go home and cry to themselves.”

Ellie is predicted an A. She scored 76% but said “It’s too hard for A Level, never mind primary school.” She questioned the point of some of the questions. “It’s all just terminology.” At A Level we constantly emphasise the way grammatical knowledge needs to be linked to the meaning of the sentence if it is to have any useful purpose; she could tell that the test required pointless knowledge.

Indeed, confusion reigned about what the test was meant to achieve. “Stuff like past progressive and subordinate clauses – it’s just not relevant when you’re in year 6,” opined another student. James, who studies Spanish as well, was one of very few who knew what the subjunctive was. “You need it in Spanish,” he said, “but the only structure in English you need it for is the one in the test and no-one uses it anyway. I felt like they just put it in to be poncey.”

How has it come to this? The Curriculum and Conservative policy

In his preface to Pygmalion GB Shaw wrote, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” For three centuries, expressing views about grammar has been used as a way to make known one’s social status. Writing to The Times about “correct usage”, or gossipping about someone’s dropped H’s signals prestige.

Despite their obsession with it, Conservative ideas about grammar in the state education system actually suggest that they’ve had no education in this area for 50 years. Making children learn lists of grammatical terms in the vain hope that this will give them more control over their writing or speech is equivalent to teaching them that continents are too big to move, or that the universe is not expanding.

Yet this elitist linguistic theology is a central pillar of the new primary curriculum in England and Wales, and schools will be judged according to how well they train their pupils in it. Under Margaret Thatcher and John Major there was a bruising public battle over Standard English (vocabulary and grammar) in the new National Curriculum. Under Cameron, there has been something of a backlash, with parents keeping their children off school on SATs test days and Caroline Lucas setting the Prime Minister his own grammar test in PMQs. Yet the key issues from a quarter of a century ago remain unresolved.

If a school leaver with a Brummie accent and dialect is less likely to get the job than someone with exactly the same credentials who speaks Standard English with a Received Pronounciation accent, whose fault is that? The answer, in the preface to Pygmalion and in the early National Curriculum, was teachers. “The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it,” thundered Shaw, apparently unable to extend his socialist principles as far as grammar. In 2016 it is plainly still not enough for schools to provide the intellectual and practical skills needed in the workforce and in life. The skill of social conformity to 20th century, white, middle class, home counties linguistic manners must also be instilled.

The logic which won the day under Thatcher and Major was that pupils of all backgrounds were “entitled” to this special key to social success. Imagine such language being used if skin colour were the issue. Fast forward to today and it is text spelling and Multi Ethnic Youth Dialect rather than split infinitives and Estuary English which are most often labelled “lazy” or “unintelligent” – language strongly reminiscent of slavery, apartheid and segregation. Apart from having been proved wrong by a felled forest of research papers, these kinds of assumptions are crystal clear examples of prejudice.

Language prejudice

So who has been pointing this out? Remarkably, the answer is mostly no-one. Oxford Professor of linguistics Deborah Cameron was struck by this. In her influential 1995 book, Verbal Hygiene, she noticed that in 1987-1994, when the debate was at its hottest, linguists had been analysing dialects as indicators of fixed social groupings like class and gender. At the same time the social sciences were treating the same categories as fluid constructs created by conformity to changing cultural expectations. The result was that in linguistics no-one was looking at whose views about language were being expressed, nor at what their agenda was.

Cameron realised that language is inherently political in a sense that goes far beyond notions of political correctness. Very often our views about language stand in for other opinions, so a mother might say: “It’s Chris and I, dear, not Me and Chris,” when she means “I got a privileged education and upbringing and I’d like you to demonstrate that you are not slipping down the social scale”. Furthermore, in the never ending process of negotiating what it means to be feminine, or heterosexual, or young, language plays a role so familiar that it is often overlooked. Our use of language is instilled with our values. It not only reflects how we see ourselves and others, it helps create our social identities and relationships.

Seen this way, power becomes relevant, because those involved in the process of shaping social norms are not equal. Governments are especially powerful. So it is fair to ask what the Conservative government is currently doing with its power.

It is undeniably extending and entrenching the imbalanced approach of the 80s and 90s by enforcing a strict diet of Standard English grammar in primary schools. This is an attempt to decrease diversity and extend advantages to those who speak Standard English at home. It is a signal to children that language prejudice, which Deborah Cameron said 20 years ago was “among the last socially acceptable prejudices”, is still to be tolerated, even encouraged, today.

There may well be very little impact on children’s actual usage, but they will nevertheless get this message with all the force of a big red cross next to answers their regional dialect-speaking families would give. Whereas last year a teacher would have balanced attention to grammatical niceties with attention to content and creativity, because of the way the new SATs test is designed, the focus will now be entirely on “correctness”.

Yes, the SATs grammar test is absurdly hard, as my A Level students found. It will destroy children’s confidence and overload lessons with irrelevant, dull tasks. No, you don’t have to be able to distinguish when the word ‘after’ is being used as a subordinating conjunction or as a preposition to be able to use it perfectly well as either. So the knowledge required has almost no educational value.

But surely it is important, alongside these arguments about SATs tests and English in the primary curriculum, to point out that the social attitudes which underpin them are divisive and dangerous.


Note: this post originally appeared on the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog. It represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting.


Matt Carmichael is an English teacher in Leeds and the co-author with Alastair McIntosh of Spiritual Activism out on Green Books. His son will start primary school in September.

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