End Piece: What is English?
Tim Hands looks at English and concludes it’s a subject of secondary importance.
Recently, an eminent prep school Head asked me if I would talk to local Heads of English about the subject we all teach. With me, I took the Second Master, Nick, also an English graduate, but an even more formidable musician, and our Head of Department, Richard, who trumps by way of relevance any other qualification – he is a Chief Examiner for GCSE.
What is English? English belongs to everyone. English is everything and nothing. English is not just a language, with a magnificent literature written in it, but an evolving construct which draws the globe together. English is big enough for different people to see it in different ways. All three presenters like to read it, write it, and teach it. Alas we all have to test it too.
I am the 60s child. Language was made before grammar, not grammar before language, as Thomas Hardy famously pointed out. English has no rules. Not only can we all speak it, but we can all punctuate it – honest. Ask any 13 year-old to read their work aloud. Pause means comma. Breath means full stop. You don’t need much else. How would I teach English ideally? With plentiful oral work, with no compulsory literature if at all possible, and certainly without a mention of Shakespeare before a pupil reaches 16.
What is being good at English? It’s acquiring a mind which can understand people and situations and structures, and express reflections on them with intelligence and elegance. Being good at English exams is something different. Public exams in English are a poor indicator of real ability. At Oxford it certainly used to be the case that English Literature GCSE was a weak indicator of success in the Final Honours School, less good than English Language. History was better than either of them. With this revelation, I rested my case.
Nick is not a man to be messed with. He got a scholarship in English to Oxford. He graduated from the Royal Academy of Music as a conductor. Friends of mine have trembled before obeying his beat. For Nick, English is not an academic subject so much as a pastoral opportunity. His favourite texts are the two parts of Henry IV by Shakespeare. The text allows you to explore family background: what it feels like to have one parent with high expectations, and another who never appears. What constitutes a proper education – wide social experience, or sibling rivalry? Siblings – now there’s another topic Nick found ripe for wider exploration. And innkeepers, and servants, and all the other people who go to make up society. Headmaster: would you ban this text? Fall to thy prayers, old man.
"English has no rules. Not only can we all speak it, but we can all punctuate it – honest. Ask any 13 year-old to read their work aloud. Pause means comma. Breath means full stop. You don’t need much else."
The stage was set for Richard, effectively the boss, the man who sets the standards. Notes began to be taken. The grammatical terms passed me by, but apparently you now have to know them for GCSE. A fronted adverbial is an adverbial element (usually a prepositional phrase) that is placed at the start of a sentence, as in, ‘In the church, they were married.’ This promotes a particular element by foregrounding its importance: but it remains to be argued whether such pedantic nicety has anything to do with good – let alone creative – writing. Richard brought out a set of sample scripts for GCSE. The note taking became more intense. Here was something measurable, necessary, transparent to the highest degree, insofar as such transparency was possible.
The sting in the tail? Its relevance. Comprehension: does it really tell a Headteacher anything which they don’t learn in a verbal reasoning test of the kind which every school sets for 11 or 13 year-olds? No. And does any test given to 11 or 13 year-olds prove a good discriminator as to their likely success at GCSE and beyond? Also no. But, of all the unsatisfactory indicators, performance in Maths is less unsatisfactory than any others. Interviews, for diverse reasons, chiefly financial, are now eschewed by most universities. But they give you a chance to perform orally, as a child of the 60s would wish, and to talk about your interests and attitudes. We all agreed that interviewing remains a very good thing.
What should our young people do – and their parents assist them with? All three of us were pretty clear. Read as much as they can of what they fancy – it doesn’t much matter what it is. The benefit comes from turning the pages, subconsciously absorbing a different style of writing, and entering imaginatively another world. Let them play, too – though not everyone might agree on this one. Many a parent would have had a model train set or a doll’s house. These were plastic not digital creations, but to me the medium does not matter – it’s the entrance into that imaginative world which is the beneficial process. Let them enjoy life to the fullest extent possible, with every adult encouragement. And let them talk about it as much as possible, and to as many people as possible, because speaking is more important than writing.
Of course it’s important to be jumping through the hoops, but that’s a job primarily for teachers to help with. The job for everyone to combine on is using every conceivable method to acquire a mind which can understand people and situations and structures, and express reflections on them with intelligence and elegance. Here’s to that creative emphasis!
Dr Tim Hands is Headmaster of Winchester College. Winchester has been educating boys continuously since its foundation in 1382 and is one of the most famous schools in the country. Tim has been a regular contributor to Attain for many years.