Not Saussure

January 14, 2007

Blaming the parents for the poor teachers

Filed under: Education — notsaussure @ 3:06 am

Oh dear me. The Telegraph reports that

Muslim mothers who do not speak English at home are stunting their children’s literacy levels, one of the Government’s most influential education advisers said last night. Sir Cyril Taylor, the chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, said that the failure of parents to speak English at home was a key reason why some schools were at the bottom of newly-published-league tables.

The problem, described by Sir Cyril as a “major issue”, should be addressed by a national campaign to encourage the mothers of ethnic minority children to attend English classes, he said. “A very high proportion of the mothers come from Bangladesh and Pakistan, not speaking English when they arrive through arranged marriages,” he added.

Rather disappointed in Sir Cyril, for whom I once worked years ago and for whom I have a very high regard. He’s not an educationalist; he’s businessman with a particular interest in education and youth programmes — he set Camp America, among many other things — and he’s very good at making things happen. He’s a great chum of Kenneth Baker, the sometime Conservative Education Secretary, for whom he essentially rescued the City Colleges, one of Baker’s initiatives that was sinking without trace until Sir Cyril came on board and saved the day. Despite the fact he was — still is, I would imagine — a committed Conservative and sometime Deputy Leader of the Conservative Group on the old GLC, David Blunkett asked him to stay on when Labour came to power.

However, this seems completely off-beam. Ignore the fact that the ladies’ religion can’t have much to do with anything in this context. As far as I know — an ex of mine was a teacher in a language support unit specialising in bilingual children, and I typed up most of her MA dissertation on the subject for her, so a bit of it’s stuck — what he’s suggesting is absolutely the worst thing anyone could do for their children.

My ex used to explain that it really wasn’t very difficult teaching five-year-olds English, even if they arrived at school speaking not a word of it. Young children absorb language like sponges and, with a bit of extra help, they were perfectly fluent within a few months; they’re surrounded by English, after all. That’s certainly what happened with one of my Godchildren; his parents (Spanish father and French mother) live in London, where young Anthony was born. They decided to bring him up tri-lingually, with Dad speaking to him in Spanish almost all the time and Mum speaking to him in French. He just sort of absorbed English along the way, and was happily prattling away in all three languages as soon as he could talk.

No, the real problems came, according to my ex, at least, when parents who didn’t speak much English tried to help their children by doing exactly what Sir Cyril suggests. The result was that the children came to school speaking very broken English — like their parents — and it’s apparently far, far more difficult to fix that than it is to start from scratch. Makes sense, when you think about it, since children learn languages by imitation rather than understanding formal grammar and so forth, so if they hear broken English all the time, that’s what they learn.

My ex and her family were a case in point; they were Ugandan Asians who’d grown up in a household where they spoke Gujerati amongst themselves, Gujerati, Hindi and Punjabi with their friends and Swahili with the servants and their children. The only time they heard English was on the BBC World Service until they started learning it at their Gujerati- and Hindi-speaking school, aged about 7. My ex had no difficulties (at least not with the language) when her father sent her over here to do her A levels, and her brothers — the youngest of whom was 11 when they were all expelled by Amin — similarly slotted right into the local grammar school when they arrived here.

The report continues,

Sir Cyril cited the example of the Grange School in Oldham, Greater Manchester, where results have plummeted under the Government’s GCSE benchmark, which requires five good GCSE passes to include maths and English.

“The Grange – where 70 per cent of pupils achieved five good GCSEs but the figure falls to 15 per cent with maths and English – has an intake which is predominantly Bangladeshi, so there is going to be an issue with literacy,”

This is highly puzzling. His reference to arranged marriages must mean the children were born here, so I cannot believe they arrived at secondary school having problems speaking English.

It sounds to me very reminiscent of something that used to infuriate my ex; she reckoned that ‘language problems’ provides a very handy excuse for poor teachers in the Primary Schools (where she used to teach). If little Johnny is having difficulty learning to read or write or do his sums, then the teacher has to do something about it. If, however, little Tariq is having similar problems then, ‘Oh, he doesn’t speak English properly, and I’m not a specialist language teacher…’

I still recall her coming home in a fury once about one of her colleagues who was complaining that one of the five-year-olds couldn’t tell the time because of his language difficulties. This surprised her, since he seemed to speak pretty good English most of the time (he could certainly count), so she broke her normal rule of only speaking English with the children to ask him to tell the time in Punjabi. Turned out that, like many children of that age, he just couldn’t tell the time in any language. A little work with a toy clock soon fixed that.

This is what used to make her so angry; as she said, the early years at school are so important. If the children went up to secondary school having been failed by their primary schools, then they were doomed to failure since it’s at the primary school that the essential foundations in numeracy and literacy are laid.

It’s very easy, if you’re idle that is, to throw up your hands in despair because the children can’t learn and there’s nothing you can do about it and it’s all the parents’ fault. Like hell it is, It’s the school’s job to teach, and if you find the methods you’d use with children who come from English-speaking homes aren’t working, then you use other, more appropriate methods. It’s hardly as if there’s any lack of practical experience in this, particularly in Oldham of all places. And if the teachers are bemused by it, you can always send them on in-service training courses. Or hire teachers who know what they’re doing.

This, to my mind, is where Sir Cyril should be directing his attentions. As I said, he’s not an educationalist, but he’s a very bright guy and it’s alarming that he’s being given such completely dud information by people who really should know better. He also, as I recall, used to be very intolerant — and rightly so — of excuses in general and, in particular, of teachers who made excuses for their pupils not learning anything.

I fear that 10 years of working for this government seem to have caused him to go native.

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  1. …It’s the school’s job to teach…

    Up to a point but equally, there’s a wealth of data supporting the contention that the parents who give over some of their hard earned time at home to hear some reading, help out a little – who take an interest, in other words – those children are usually way ahead.

    Personally, I can’t see why a parent would not take an interest in his child’s education in the first place.

    Yes, it is the school’s job to teach but also yes, if the parents want results, they’re going to have to do a bit themselves to support this.

    Comment by james higham — January 14, 2007 @ 5:22 pm

  2. Oh, certainly. And if Sir Cyril had been saying that, I’d completely agree with him; my point, though, was that schools tend — or at least tended, and it looks as if they still do — to see the fact that English isn’t a child’s first language not so much as an additional challenge but as excuse for not acheiving very much.

    In fact, the point you make raises another problem with Sir Cyril’s complaint; far better, I’d have thought, for the parents to be talking with, and reading to, their children, and explaining things to them in whatever language they feel most comfortable with, than to have them stumble along in a language with which they have difficulties.

    Comment by notsaussure — January 14, 2007 @ 7:06 pm

  3. Glad to see you taking this nasty little story head on. I can think of many examples of children starting school and having to learn the language as they go along – in fact, some unaccompanied, non-English speaking refugee children manage very well indeed when they’re a great deal older than 5.

    Perhaps the real question should be whether curriculum demands are allowing children to get enough individual attention, or time simply to play and chat?

    Comment by archrights — January 14, 2007 @ 9:58 pm

  4. You’re dead right, Notsaussure, in that I can attest to a similar set of experiences. I’m always astonished at how quickly such children pick up English (_and_ how quickly they learn to spell it too, much harder business).

    Comment by Tin Drummer — January 15, 2007 @ 4:29 pm

  5. Surprisingly (well, *I’m* surprised!), I am rather hesitant to put forward the view that Sir Cyril Taylor is a smug idiot but that is because I heard him interviewed on radio in the last few days. Unfortunately, I was half asleep and therefore only half listening at the time but at one particularly inane comment I felt the strong desire to throw the radio out of the window but then the Sandman got me!

    Comment by David Duff — January 15, 2007 @ 11:01 pm

  6. Sir Cyril can certainly be smug but he’s by no means an idiot; trust me on this — I’ve seen him action.

    Comment by notsaussure — January 15, 2007 @ 11:21 pm

  7. […] Not Saussure quotes the Telegraph: […]

    Pingback by Update | The Samovar — August 31, 2013 @ 8:07 pm

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