Jan Mark Memorial Bursary Fund
You are invited to contribute to the setting up of a fund by Ty Newydd in memory of the life and work of Jan Mark. The fund will provide an annual bursary for a writer to attend the Writing for Children course at Ty Newydd where Jan Mark was a regular tutor and guest. Cheques should be made out to Taliesin Trust Ltd and marked ‘Jan Mark BF’ on the back. Please send to: The Bursar, Ty Newydd, Llanystymdwy, Cricieth, Gwynedd LL52 OLW.
Congratulations to Mary Briggs and Elizabeth Hammill who have been presented with Honorary Doctor of Civil Law degrees for their visionary work at Seven Stories, the Centre for Children’s Books in Newcastle.
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
As the editor of Waiting for a Jamie Oliver (also its predecessor Meetings with the Minister ) may I comment on the letters of Sue Wilsher and Rachel Crystal who take Robert Hull to task in BfK 159?
In fact, none of the contributors to these pamphlets ‘hark back to a mythical golden age of teaching’ (Crystal) or ‘view the past as a sort of idyll’ (Wilsher) though this is certainly what the government would like you to think. On the contrary, one of our main objections to The National Literacy Strategy is that it gave so little priority to the advice of good class-teachers like themselves. As a result, we’ve paid a very high price indeed for its improvements – some of which have actually made matters worse. How is it, for instance, that in a decade-or-so of unprecedented attention to Literacy we have seen the following:
* The perilous decline of reading (and consequently writing) for the sheer pleasure of it – especially amongst boys. This is now so serious that even the QCA is taking timid steps to put it right.
* The running down, and in many cases loss altogether, of the very agencies that support that pleasure – such as libraries, specialist children’s librarians, School Library Services and any college course which foregrounds children’s literature (The School Bookshop Association, once the raison d’être of this very magazine, has now vanished as if it had never been).
* The marginalisation of all modes of language-use that resist official testing eg Poetry, Drama and Speaking and Listening generally – any mode, that’s to say, which invites an individual response or which calls for the playfulness, risk-taking and courting of possible failure that’s associated with all genuine creativity. Again, these are now in such a parlous state that even the QCA has noticed.
Of course, I’m not asking Sue Wilsher and Rachel Crystal to shoulder responsibility for the above. They’ve got enough on their plates already coping with the damage-limitation it entails. Somebody must, though. This is why the bunker mentality evident in their letters is so dismaying. They’re so paralysed by feelings of persecution they don’t even notice Robert Hull is on their side! If the author of Behind the Poem , with his thirty years’ experience of full-time classroom teaching, can be dismissed as ‘unthinking’ on the grounds that he’s no longer ‘current’, then clearly I was wasting my time assembling the views of other former teachers like Bernard Ashley, Michael Morpurgo and Philip Pullman… let alone those of writers who have never been on the staff of a primary school such as Anne Fine, Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. Do Sue Wilsher and Rachel Crystal really believe that these people’s commitment to Literacy is less relevant and less wholehearted than their own? If so, does their sense of their own exclusivity also extend to researchers, to their own head-teachers, and to that bunch of unsung heroes who’ve had to be fabulously successful even to survive in recent years – namely, the teachers who have neither left the primary classroom nor adopted the poisoned chalice of The National Literacy Strategy? These are more plentiful than you’d think and ought to be at the centre of any attempt to rectify its shortcomings.
Mind you, I don’t blame Sue Wilsher and Rachel Crystal for being paranoid. These days, I often feel that way myself. As someone who’s always maintained that primary teaching requires both virtuoso pedagogic skills and the most rigorous of ongoing intellectual scrutiny, I’ve left till last what I see as the most baleful consequence of existing government policy:
* Many otherwise excellent primary teachers are so worn out by the ‘delivery’ of an overloaded, contradictory and under-resourced curriculum that they have no energy left to question it or even tolerate its questioning by others.
For an activity like education, especially with regard to its most powerful component Literacy, could anything be more pernicious?
I find the letters you publish in response to my first article (see BfK Nos 158 and 159) dispiriting, cheap shots and all, ironically reinforcing one’s conviction that, in so far as Literacy is concerned, many teachers are in denial. ‘Most teachers use the Literacy Hour and other documents to best effect to put creativity and enjoyment high on the agenda.’ And: ‘It is the human interpretation of these documents that is the key.’ And: ‘Teachers and children can be creative both inside and despite such frameworks.’
These defensive asssertions are meaningless in the absence of evidence and argument. How does one ‘put creativity’ – to repeat the management-speak – ‘high on the agenda’? What are the evidential results of doing so? What does this rosily ‘human interpretation’ of Literacy consist of exactly? How does one rebut the contention that a norm of chronic state intrusiveness can hardly develop without having powerful determining and possibly stifling effects on the work of many teachers?
Instead of argument and evidence there is resentment consequent on injury; we should ‘trust teachers to do what they love doing’. As the state does? In fact my piece argues for teachers to be accorded far more of a say; I don’t accept that their professionality should involve endlessly having to ‘interpret’ documentation that someone else writes, far from any classroom and further still from children and sanity. I’d like the state to re-professionalise teachers, by handing power back to them – power over, crucially, curriculum.
One trouble is that historically, many advisers, along with the teachers they have led, haven’t chafed at the state’s insidious assumption of what is properly speaking professional authority, and have been inclined to see teachers’ disenfranchisement as inevitable, even a ‘good thing’. Teachers have been socialised into justifying what they’re reluctant to rebel against, either intellectually or politically. Literacy and the National Curriculum are, and have to be, ok; they ‘fulfil a need’. Whose? May one ask?
Maybe it’s time for such state-sponsored certitudes to make way for more that is disputatious and argumentative. It’s certainly sad to read, in lieu of argument, both cheap shots that aren’t worth quoting and narcissistic plaint about ‘doing my best with the kids’ when I could be ‘sitting at home writing articles’. As for (my) ‘thoughtless attack’, I spent a few years trying to get to grips intellectually – while teaching full-time – with the narratives of some children’s creativity with language. The book I did probably won’t have come your correspondents’ way (I hope not, given what they say) because being intensely on the side of children’s creativity, it won’t have been on the state’s agenda for them.
It just doesn’t confront the serious questions that many people have raised, among them myself, simply to say we’re working hard, we’re being creative within Literacy, we ‘loathe’ SATs but ‘have to compromise’, and ‘do some limited exam technique work’.
What is ‘under discussion here’ – except that the discussion for these teachers seems to have ended – is over and again the overall inhibiting effect of the state’s intrusively coercive role in telling teachers what English to teach and when and how. C’est tout.
South Barnham, Bognor
Yet again we have politicians telling us that there is only one way to achieve something. Below is a poem from my collection ‘The Ghost of my Pussycat’s Bottom’. I think it expresses what I feel about the mad cyclical fad that adopts phonics to the exclusion of other methods.
Ho Ho Ho (a tonic for the chronically phonic)
An honest horse
made his home
in a house
on the hot horizon.
he put on a hood,
dipped his hooves in honey,
and hoisted a flag…
eleven different ways of
Penny Sibson writes…
Few people outside publishing realise how much a writer may owe to a good editor. Phyllis Hunt, Children’s Books Editor of Faber from 1961 to 1987, who died in May, was acknowledged to be one of the very best, tactfully guiding, shaping, advising, developing ideas and making constructive suggestions, the perfect ‘outside eye’. For a quarter of a century she built up a list of children’s writers and artists that had few equals and was particularly strong on fiction for both older and younger children, led by award-winning authors such as Lucy Boston, Pauline Clarke, Helen Cresswell, Rosemary Harris, Gene Kemp (whose The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler won first The Other Award and then the Carnegie Medal), Susan Price, and also Antonia Forest, Kenneth Lillington, Jenny Overton, Tim Kennemore and many others. She published poetry and stories by Ted Hughes and Judith Nicholls, and anthologies assembled by Sara and Stephen Corrin, Naomi Lewis and Kevin Crossley-Holland. Her list also included a little non-fiction and a select number of picture books: the Kate Greenaway Medal of 1985 went to Errol Le Cain’s Hiawatha’s Childhood .
Phyllis was admired and respected not only for her editorial skills but her erudition (she left Oxford with a First-class M.A. and a B.Litt.). She had a phenomenal memory; when it came to tracking a quotation to its source it was often said: ‘If Phyllis doesn’t know it, we’ve either got it wrong or it doesn’t exist.’ However she wore her learning lightly and her authors loved her, keeping in touch with her and visiting her in Wiltshire long after her retirement. In her last years Phyllis became an addict of the ‘Harry Potter’ saga; one of her greatest regrets was that she would never know how that story ended before her own did. (A longer tribute to Phyllis Hunt can be found on the BfK website.)