The Schools minister, Nick Gibb (as reported in The Telegraph 3.5.2016), says that tests need not be stressful and ‘are used to measure schools, not pupils.’ (not listening or not been in a school recently?) At other times he claims that the tests are essential to the children’s learning (how?) - and sometimes he says that the tests are essential to help teachers diagnose areas for development (as if they weren’t doing that all the time – and so much more). Now he seems to be saying that the tests actually exist to gauge how obediently schools are following the government’s ‘reform agenda’ – or whether they need to be turned into academies. Not only does he thrash about in an increasingly desperate attempt to defend the indefensible, but he seems unable to think things through at all. Hence the manic goal-post movement – the action of a cheat and a loser. Of course, I’m not saying that he IS a cheat or a loser, but everyone has the potential – everyone CAN be a cheat or a loser. You know, like a word like ‘after’ CAN be a subordinating conjunction, although (obviously) it IS a preposition.
But underpinning all such claims is an assumption that sees testing as synonymous with effective education. How reductive and wrong can you be? Can Gibb seriously believe that the complexity of children’s development can be rendered simplistically as a set of numbers, or that the sophistication of teachers’ daily influence and formative assessment of pupils should be taken into no account? (Probably, yes.)
However, these questions are irrelevant if, as Michael Rosen argues in his blog, the real intention behind the high-stakes testing regime, is to prove large swathes of the population (probably at least half) are failures – according to conveniently designed ‘standards’. Once people have been branded as failures, so the argument goes, they are clearly undeserving. And if they are undeserving then governments can coerce or ignore them with impunity, and employers pay them next to nothing. This approach has everything to do with tyranny and nothing to do with education. Once there is central or privatised control of all schools (academisation), and manipulation of all the tests and their marking, then it may be possible to extirpate free-thinking. The government can then appeal over the tops of teachers’ heads to any resistance as ‘sabotage of the government’s reform and improvement agenda’ . Then, with the media regulated or hood-winked, the government’s message can be amplified, debate can be effectively silenced and real education can be closed down altogether.
Nick Gibb was interviewed by Martha Kearney on BBC Radio 4’s World at One, May 3rd.
Martha asked him one of the ‘trick’ questions, so beloved of the KS2 grammar test-setters:
In the following sentence, is ‘after’ being used as a subordinating conjunction or as a preposition:
‘I went to the cinema after I’d eaten my dinner.’
Gibb struggled to reply:
First attempt: ‘Well, ‘after’ is a preposition.’
The verb ‘is’ in Gibb’s answer shows that he doesn’t recognise the question’s premise or have much understanding of grammar at all (even though these ridiculous tests have been introduced at his command). Gibb appears to see words as ‘born’ immovably into one class, as if a word’s function couldn’t change when people used it for different purposes. After all, that’s why the question is being asked, for goodness’ sake! If ‘after’ really was always a preposition, there would be no point in asking this kind of question. Arguably, of course, there isn’t.
Second attempt, once Martha has put him right: ‘Well, ‘after’ IS a preposition.’
This is classic, isn’t it? You find out that you are wrong, but struggle vainly on insisting that you are right – he really put the stress on ‘IS’ – as if when Moses came down the mountain, he’d brought with him a tablet of stone with the message ‘Look guys, whatever else changes – your god, your feelings towards your parents and neighbours - just remember that ‘after IS (always) a preposition.’ There’s a name for that kind of behaviour. Maybe if you just shout loud enough and are powerful enough, the rules of grammar will suddenly change and you’ll be hailed as some kind of linguistic superman.
Third attempt, digging that hole a little deeper now: ‘It CAN be used in some contexts as a word that co-ordinates a sub-clause ...’
Sorry, but ‘co-ordinates a sub-clause’? ‘CO-ORDINATES A SUB-CLAUSE’? Which version of the language is this? Does he perhaps mean ‘subordinates a clause’? (the clue after all was in the question) And why such a graceless concession? By his own rules, he was wrong, dammit!
Fourth attempt : ‘Fine. Well, if I’ve sd .. ee.. that ... th ... (blustering before sensing a way out by moving the goal-posts) ... but it isn’t about me ...’
This takes the biscuit. What if an 11 year old replied to all the questions ‘This isn’t about me.’? Nul points. If you’re the minister with oversight for this cruel and misguided shambles, it jolly well is about you. Why not fess up and take some responsibility? You could concede that the question obviously can’t easily be answered by most native adult language users and should therefore not be asked of 11 year olds.
Fifth attempt: ‘This isn’t about me, Martha (patronising effort to control interview by using interviewer’s name)... this is about ensuring that future generations of children unlike me (it’s reassuring to know that there won’t be any more children like him!) who incidentally who was not taught grammar ... at ... er ... primary school ...’
This is apparently because he knows he WAS taught grammar at Maidstone Grammar school. But actually, he was probably taught grammar at primary school too – you know, conventions, patterns of language, word endings, subject-verb agreement, pluralisations, punctuation – though with his peculiar ideas about what grammar teaching is (i.e. requiring a high-stakes test in a hi-viz jacket), he might not have recognised it. Also, isn’t this a pathetic argument for a grown man to use? let alone the Schools minister! - along the lines of ‘anyway, it’s not my fault – my primary school teachers were negligent.’ And if he wasn’t taught grammar, how on earth did he get a place in a grammar school ? Or perhaps we’d better not ask.
Final attempt: ‘We need to make sure that future generations are taught grammar properly so that when they are asked to WRITE at secondary school - when they go to university and they’re asked to write an essay - it isn’t a struggle to construct a properly crafted and grammatically correct sentence in the way that you, Martha, write ... er ... fluently - we want all children to have the same advantages that you have in writing.’
The pronoun ‘we’ reveals an uneasy shift. Not ‘I’ or ‘me’ as he used earlier but now the first person plural. Or is this the royal ‘we’? (A bit pompous) Does ‘we’ mean the 330 Conservative MPs in parliament? (spreading the blame?) Or is ‘we’ the radio audience or the entire British people? (desperate attempt to masquerade as consensual ?) And how on earth is a test the same as teaching – or even teaching ‘properly’(whatever that is in Gibb’s mad world)? And Gibb’s use of the word ‘so’ suggests that the reason why people don’t write fluently is because their sentences aren’t crafted grammatically. This is just not true: knowing the difference between a preposition and a subordinating conjunction does NOT help you research your topic, marshal your arguments or make you write in fluent prose. Quite the opposite, in fact! Gibb seems to be making the same kind of mistake in confusing grammatical knowledge with effective writing, as he makes when he regularly confuses phonological knowledge with effective reading. As for the last sentence, (leaving aside the creepy fawning which Martha immediately rejects) the implication is that one person’s advantages in writing (social/pecuniary/personal? It’s not clear) should be in the possession of all. That would be as impossible as it would be dull.
‘Oh yes, I know that people CAN be wazzocks, but this man IS a schools’ minister.’
I may have got those clauses the wrong way round.
A sentiment attributed to Antoine de Saint-Exupery reads:
If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
This seems a particularly apposite quotation to illuminate why Nick Gibb and his kind are so profoundly mistaken about writing. For the small-minded there is no big picture – just a tapestry of pixels. For those who are threatened by distinctive new voices, they get out the old hymn-sheet and force us to sing, even if we no longer believe in the words. It’s far easier to posture about so-called rigour, than risk opening up a culturally responsive education - dynamic, collaborative and informed. To old Nick – and young Nicky – if people don’t at first understand, just shout louder – and if that doesn’t work, then vilify them, ‘explaining’ that their informed resistance is, in fact, ‘ideological sabotage’. To the Nicks everything lies in the letter, nothing in the spirit. If you can just shackle a diverse populus to a bowdlerised version of outmoded convention, everything will be all right. They couldn’t be more wrong.
Unfortunately, it’s little consolation to know how wrong - or how unqualified - they are, when their testing juggernaut still careers over the well-being of teachers, pupils and students. But the continuance of this project (NWP) and new interest in it, suggests that we are not alone.