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English teaching and the ‘crisis’ of recruitment and retention. ‘Remembrance of times past’ --but considering times future

February 23, 2018

Conversations with colleagues from the IFTE countries, UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, suggest that the profession of English teaching is experiencing some serious challenges.  Canada is perhaps the exception but it is hard to gauge given Canada’s federal structure, perhaps some places are attracting and supporting English teachers in admirable ways?


But more generally, conversations are about increasing prescription, the narrow and oppressive effects of high stakes testing and the profound erosion of professional autonomy.  These are characteristics affecting the whole of the teaching professions in each country, but for the community of English teachers, it can be argued, the damage is especially corrosive. 


The great majority of English teachers approach their teaching as student centred, flexibly responsive to student needs and as a creative collaboration between themselves and their own classes.  They are passionate and personal in their teaching and they respect the personal lives of their students and their passions; no wonder a good English class is an exciting experience for teacher and students.  However, all the characteristics outlined above are taming that excitement and making the English classroom – frankly – pretty boring and focused on narrow outcomes.  It seems many potential great English teachers are not choosing to train to teach, or are leaving after only 2 or 3 years in the profession; equally many experienced and very good teachers are quitting early.  The next section focuses on England as a case study of this rather depressing scenario – it is no longer really credible to speak of the UK as the four countries have diverged in their approaches to education, Scotland in particular has maintained a more progressive approach to its teachers and students.  So this next section is something of a case study and invites contributions and responses from colleagues around the world about their own experiences and, perhaps, solutions to common problems.


The state of England is in a ‘bit of a state’


The British Educational Research Association has a new [formally recognised from September 2017] Special Interest Group [SIG] called The English in Education SIG. It is one small attempt to give a new voice to the English teaching community in difficult times, its emphasis is on research and teacher education but much of its focus is on the teaching of English in schools and on those who currently are practitioners.


The SIG held its first research seminar on Feb 15th, an excellent occasion featuring Dr Simon Gibbons of Kings college, part of The University of London [UCL].  Simon’s research has mostly focused on the history of English teaching in secondary schools in England and his two books, (2014) The London Association for the Teaching of English 1947-67: A history. London: IoE/Trentham Press,  and (2017) English and its teachers: a history of policy, pedagogy and practice. Oxford: Routledge are both important contributions to the field.  In his seminar he divided the last 50 years into two broad phases which we might designate the age of invention [ about 1960-1988] and the age of increasing intervention [1988- continuing] and, in his presentation, speculated on whether there had perhaps once been a ‘golden age’ of English teaching in the UK.  The Proust quotation cited above, ‘remembrance of time past’ can also be translated as a lament for time lost, that is of good times that cannot be relived.


Coming into the present tense we can argue that much time has been, and is being, banally wasted in English classrooms [certainly in England] because of a number of factors, discussed below.  What is without question happening is that English teaching in England is suffering a severe retention crisis; more anecdotally recruitment is also a problem, principally due to the poor recruitment of School Direct, this is a training programme with typically very little academic content; however, regardless of which route into teaching, English teaching and more generally the profession of teaching, is facing a severe recruitment crisis.


It is to use the evidence of history and not sentimentality to reflect on the current issues facing English teaching in England’s schools. As Simon pointed out in his presentation, there was a long period when English in Education was a thriving discipline.  The seminal Dartmouth conference of 1966 was a remarkable event in the history of the subject, bringing together leading thinkers in the field from the US and UK.  It was funded by the US government in the spirit of the Cold War, with that government afraid it was falling behind the Soviets as an education system; the resurgence of Russian nationalism is a stark reminder that history also repeats itself.  This event will be remembered and evaluated in the forthcoming IFTE third volume The Future of English world wide, this book should be available at the forthcoming IFTE conference in June in England – see note below.


The Dartmouth conference was something of a fulcrum for thinking about the purpose of English and Growth Through English [Dixon, 1967] was the UK report of conclusions about what English in schools might achieve.  However, it was, in a sense a stopping off place, as the already powerful movement of progressive English swept through the comprehensive schools of the country between the 1960s and 1980s.  The key thinkers of that time James Britton, Douglas Barnes, Harold Rosen, Nancy Martin – and numerous others – developed a version of English that was dynamic and emancipatory.  Its emphasis was on the vital importance of speaking and listening, of writing as a discipline of expression, best captured through course work and not examinations, of reading of literature of all kinds, of respect for the language communities that children came from and for an increasing recognition of diversity and cultural difference.  The evidence of history is that its teachers were fired up by this child centred and future oriented version of English.  These teachers had a great deal of autonomy, a passionate commitment to comprehensive education and were a part of powerful and inspiring professional communities, especially  evident, as Simon’ research demonstrates in The London Association for the Teaching of English [LATE] and its national equivalent, NATE.


The contrast with the present is stark.  Teaching as a profession has low status, the confusing range of routes into teaching is bewildering and not empowering and the individual teacher has little autonomy and is forced to focus on high stakes testing throughout secondary schooling.  English as a subject no longer has coursework, speaking and listening has been demoted to a side show and a narrow version of the English literary heritage dominates GCSE.


Research over many years demonstrates that applicants for courses to become English teachers typically express their love of reading and wish to pass on this passion to young readers, as Simon remarked, he has yet to interview any candidate who expresses a love for putting especially neat lesson objectives on the board.


The quotation so often used about the value of history is, ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ (Santayana, 1905) something made vividly true by 30 years of government policy in England in relation to the teaching profession but, perhaps most forcefully, in relation to the subject of English.  However, Simon also quoted from a most famous educational radical ‘things have not always been as they are and need not remain so’ [Brian Simon].


Research into English teaching in schools across the world has never been more important, it should be informed by the history of the subject and of policy interventions, but it needs to demonstrate how authentically good English teaching produces excellent student learning and why becoming an English teacher, and remaining robust and resilient through difficult times, remains a truly worth while career. 


With so much narrow nationalism infecting many countries at present, it is also a very important time for sharing ideas internationally. It helps to share the pains and frustrations of current issues but even more to celebrate the great teaching of English wherever it happens.  We need to share the findings of our research across our national boundaries and to develop internationally significant research that might used as real evidence in any system to support best practice and to oppose merely ideological government policy shifts.


One opportunity is coming up at the next IFTE conference, between June 21st and June 24th at The University of Aston in Birmingham, England, hosted by NATE.  Over 40 papers by over 60 international speakers have already been accepted and the second call for papers is now available here on the IFTE web site, we hope to see you there.  In the meanwhile we look forward to responses  to this Blog in the spirit of international exchange.

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