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Mind your language, Minister: 'war' and primary education

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Mind your language, Minister: 'war' and primary education

Post by Jill Segger on Wed Feb 25, 2015 5:10 pm

It seems we are at war again. Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has declared a “war on illiteracy and innumeracy”. The booty will include 11-year-olds reciting the twelve times table and the attrition, threatening schools which fail to deliver this with being taken over by new management.

No sensible person could wish for any child to be disempowered by being unable to read or do the basic arithmetic necessary to function, let alone flourish, in their daily lives. Nor is it possible to imagine any teacher not intending to do their best to see that this is achieved. But the Education Secretary's language reveals a lazy delusion that 'war' is an appropriate metaphor for effective action. In attempting to give an impression of toughness and determination, she moves the focus away from intelligent and collaborative action towards conflict and threat.

There are a great many reasons for children having difficulties with number and the written word. Some of these will be overcome by individual attention and trust. Others will be more intractable. To measure success by recitation of the entirely otiose twelve times table is alarmingly absurd. There will probably be at least one child in most schools who will not get over this obstacle, thus triggering retribution under Ms Morgan's battle plan.

Many years ago, I helped a man to become functionally literate. We were both young and embarking on a new stage of life – I was a recent graduate, he had just been released from prison. That he learned to read and write was far more due to his own determination than to my efforts. I was not a teacher and could only bring a willingness to find out what worked best for him. But the partnership was successful – not least because it was collaborative, flexible and carried no potentially deforming sanctions.

Obviously, this situation differs in many ways from that which obtains in our primary schools. But the reasons for the apparent failure of his school are worth considering. This man, who had a quick intelligence and considerable insight into his own strengths and weaknesses, described himself as “a badly messed up kid” and acknowledged that “there wasn't much the teacher could do. I just didn't want to know.” It does not seem that bellicose terminology and illusions of toughness have much to offer here.

The new Education Secretary – initially billed as less confrontational than her predecessor – might reflect. The current political fashion may be for 'weaponising', but the language of war should not be used around anything to do with children and those who nurture their development.

This blog first appeared on Ekklesia and is reproduced with acknowledgement. www.ekklesia.co.uk

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen
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