Sunday, 4 July 2021

English on a darkling plain – to follow your head or your heart

Listen! you hear the grating roar

Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,

At their return

The current GCSEs get quite a bit of stick in the education world. For some they are fascist and for knowledge fetishists only and for others they are clarity in a sea of wooliness. Yet, these exams have been seen to be the driving force behind the decline of subjects at A-level and beyond. Poets, writer and others see exams and changes in KS2 as the rot in the system. They will decry that learning grammar knowledge is reductive. They will decry that the removal of coursework will put students off for life. They will decry that if you don’t adhere to this world view that you are either aligned with a political party or evil. Or, in some cases both.

As a foot soldier, a teacher, and a head of a department, you see the world differently to others. You see the day-to-day of things. You see more the subtle shifts and changes and less of the tidal changes. You also see the complexity behind things.  And, I believe, it is something far more complex. The exams and grammar knowledge in primary schools are the easy targets because they are visible and easy to critique. They are products of the system. They are the poster boys for the problem. Yet, the problem is far more deeper than that.

We’ve reached a stage where we’ve been led to believe that teaching good literature is putting students off English.

We’ve reached a stage where we’ve been led to believe that teaching students about grammar terminology is putting students off English.

We’ve reached a stage where we’ve been led to believe that teaching students by learning some knowledge is putting students off English.

We’ve been led to believe a lot of things and I think sadly we haven’t address the real big change. That’s change has been society. Society has changed and with that change has changed many other things which have impacted on English and other subjects. The world has changed and so too have things around us. We had an oversimplification of the problem. One single change in the exam system and the world will change its rotation. One single change in KS2 will then reverse time. The oversimplification of education and the issues impacting on it has frustrated me to the point of being silent on Twitter.

Sophocles long ago

Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought

Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow

Of human misery; we

Find also in the sound a thought,

Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

To be honest, long ago I always wanted to be an actor. Part of me, to this day, still does. I loved acting so much I did it at every opportunity. I was in the town’s annual pantomime. I was in school plays. I loved it so much, therefore,  that I decide to study it at university with English. Then, I had a dark decision to make after three years of acting: do I continue with something I truly enjoyed or do I opt for stability? My family isn’t wealthy and I was only able to go to university because of a grant. The grant alone wasn’t enough to support me, so I had to work quite a bit in a pub to cover bills. It wasn’t easy. It was pretty tough. The decision was a difficult one. Do I continue to struggle financially and do the thing I love or do I get a job in something I am not interested in?   

I went for the job.

I made a decision that was best for my context. It was a practical decision, but one that ensured I had money to house, clothe and feed me when the grant stopped. Yes, it wasn’t enjoyable or what I wanted but it was what I needed.  

 But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

The change I have seen in students in the last decade is the one I made in twenties many years ago. They are having to make difficult decisions sooner rather than later. They deciding to sacrifice enjoyment for the sake of stability and need. Students are making life-changing decisions at an earlier age. It isn’t about enjoying creative subjects, but about worrying about where will they get the money for the basics in life.

I have taught lots of students over the years and some have gone on to study English or English literature. Recently, I have noticed a more practical approach in the way students approach things. Rather than go for subjects they enjoy, they go for subjects that will guarantee a job. When I studied English for A-level and degree, I chose because I enjoyed it and not because I wanted a high salaried job at the end of it. The lay of the land has meant that creative subjects are not perceived as viable careers. I know how difficult it is to get into acting and writing. There’s no guarantees. The jobs associated with creativity are long-term plans and careers. They are not instant bucks.

We are living in a world where the biggest priority for students is getting financial security and stability. They have, in effect, grown up long before their time. That, for me, is what has changed. Not adverbial phrases. Not the lack of creativity. If creativity could guarantee that a student got a job when he left at eighteen, then students would be all aboard the creativity train. I know, first-hand, how scary and unsettling things can be. We all crave stability and security.

There is a battle in students between their heads and their heart. In financially insecure times, do you follow your head or your heart? This is the decision they have to make. You can blame whatever you like in the education, but society and the world at the moment is forcing them to make this choice. Not the subject.

 Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.


Thanks for reading,



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