The Reader Gets Angry

Below you can download the full version of Gabriella Gruder-Poni’s essay, ‘Scenes from a PGCE’ published in The Reader 35.

In the magazine we printed the shorter piece under the tag line ‘The Reader Gets Angry’ partly to draw attention to Gabriella’s important essay, and partly as a warning to the faint of heart. This is indeed a furious argument against the slow forms of stupidity that large organisations are capable of maintaining on principle. It is an attack on the defeated policies that seek to preserve the appearance of success by lowering standards, and a defence of these core values in education: the need to read so as to understand the world in which you live, the right to inherit great literature, the value of raising yourself to equality rather than sinking towards it. There are recognisable figures here: the trendy teachers, the jobsworth functionaries, the bemused students, and the exasperated, disbelieving parents. One character you may not know yet — but you will certainly know her by the end of the piece — is Gabriella Gruder-Poni herself who keeps protesting throughout her training course.

It begins:

Two months into a PGCE in English, I noticed that the Year 9 students in my school, considered one of the best in the county, had trouble with basic vocabulary: ‘envy’, ‘lament’, ‘fiend’, ‘distinguish’, ‘negative’ and ‘eternal’ were Greek to them; no wonder they found reading frustrating. So I brought from home a stack of vocabulary books that I had used in middle school. With their witty exercises on usage and notes on etymology, these books had awakened in me a love for the English language, and I hoped they would do the same for the students I would soon teach. In the spirit of sharing a good book, I lent one of the volumes in the series to the convenor of my PGCE. A few months later, instead of returning the book to me, Mr.F— summoned me to his office. ‘Why did you lend this book to me?’ he demanded. ‘I thought you would be interested’. How wrong I had been: far from being interested, he was outraged. The book was ‘dreadful’ and ‘frightening’. I was almost too surprised to argue, but I did mention my own positive experiences learning from the books – here he seemed momentarily embarrassed – and using them to teach English composition. Wouldn’t learning new words make the students better readers and writers? Not at all; the books were ‘boring’, ‘dangerous’ and flawed, because they did not include all possible definitions of the words. ‘You have to start somewhere!’ I thought, but didn’t say so. Hoping to placate him, I said, ‘Well, if you don’t want me to use them, I won’t’. ‘Oh, you certainly won’t’. Finally, he exclaimed: ‘They’ll never need these words!’ Thankfully, the interview came to a close soon after, and I left with his words ringing in my ears: ‘They’ll never need those words’, never need words like ‘assail’, ‘assimilate’, ‘mishap’ or ‘ostentatious’. Why not? Didn’t he expect them to read and write? I began to suspect that my students’ woeful ignorance might be a consequence of attitudes like those of Mr. F—. After a demoralising first term, reckoning that I was not going to learn anything, nor was I going to get a chance to help the students, I considered dropping out of the PGCE. But a friend convinced me to think of myself as an undercover reporter, and I decided to stay. ‘They’ll never need those words’ – these words are the reason for this article.

Download the article here.

Please do write in to us to tell us what you think — for and against — and to pass on your experiences in the school system or to tell us what were your own school days were like.

19 thoughts on “The Reader Gets Angry”

  1. It’s a great article and shocking too, but I’m not sure things have necessarily changed much. Back in the seventeenth century when I was in school I did an awful lot of reading–I loved reading–but not much of what I was supposed to read. English lessons were so dull they were a threat to health. I remember sitting at the back of the class reading Anna Karenina while the other kids were dismembering Hardy’s The Trumpet Major line by effing line. It’s a godawful ridiculous book anyway–why in the name of all that is good and clean and pig-smelling couldn’t it have been Jude?–but to work through it that way would probably now count as a criminal act of cruelty. Of my many misdemeanors in those interminable English Lit lessons that was by far the most benign, but it’s a wonder more kids don’t actually die as a result of teaching like that. I’m pretty sure it caused internal bleeding with me anyway. Of course the upshot was that I arrived in my O-Level exam not having read the set books and scored a magnificent ‘U’-Unclassified. It is the academic qualification of which I am most proud.

  2. The section about the ‘spy’ episode says quite a bit about schooling today. Education should be a voyage of discovery; instead the vast majority of what is taught has little to do with discovery and more to do with shaping a future workforce and ‘model’ citizen (though that should be ‘subject’ as Britain is not a republic). Some classes, such as the ‘citizen’ classes smack of something that wouldn’t be out of place in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. My local council thinks nothing of advertising a recruiting campaign that suggests that young people should report incidences of littering or dog-fouling. This seems to be how young people are viewed these days and this article does nothing to disabuse that point.

    It is refreshing to read something that doesn’t blame the youngsters. However blaming the teachers misses the mark as well.

    We live in a world of deep pessimism. Environmentalism, for example, constantly pushes a message of deep distrust in human endeavour and misanthropy (The point about fatalism being self-rightious, is a very telling one). In schools, as has been pointed out by Mr Gruder-Poni, classes are taught by appealing to the lowest level rather than attempting to raise a pupil above there day-to-day world. Hence the pupil who has ‘greater difficulty’ is not expected to improve whilst those with a greater ability are held back.

    It seems to me that it is not only English that is being taught ‘factory-like’ but all teaching.

    This is not something that happened overnight. Society has lost faith in itself and whilst environmentalism has become the new religion it offers nothing in the way of salvation. If we look at new technology, for example: where as once development was greeted in a positive manner today anything that has the potential to improve upon our lives is held up to mass suspicion. In every aspect of life development is suspect.

    One of the products of this misanthropic view is multi-culturalism. This relativist view has come to dominate every aspect of life. It places equal value on all things thus giving it an appearance of democracy. But it has nothing to do with democracy – a principle that inherently assumes a better life and that there are different values in the world. Democracy is about expectation, multi-culturalism is about the mundane. So, in education, pupils are maintained at their level rather than pushed on to something greater that has the potential improve their lives. In a world where Robbie Williams is equal to Jussi Bjoering simply on the basis that they are both singers and that Lennon/McCartney can be compared to Schubert; is it any wonder that teachers will be looking to make education relevant?

    That the use of English is particularly appalling is a result of it being taught as something useful: a means of communicating rather than as a discipline and a potential portal into greater worlds. This, I believe, is a result of the vocational approach to education (and it is not just in secondary schools, what is laughingly called ‘higher’ education is also sold on the benefit of future employment, rather than education for the sake of learning). Education (as opposed to teaching) recognises that there are different values in the world and that everyone is capable of working through those variations and finding their own path. That may lead some to accepting things and others to opposing things about everyday life. It is that divergence of views that pushes humanity forward and it is that very process that is being stifled in today’s world.

    The tragedy is that the problems that true educationalists like Mr. Gruder-Poni are facing cannot just be solved by tinkering with the system; the whole view that exists in society has to be questioned.

    I am a product of the late sixties/early seventies. I failed my 11+ (I didn’t, as far as I can recall, require counselling), and so I went into secondary. The school I went to in Warwick was seen as one of the worst in the shire; it produced a high level of criminals and was only good for providing fodder for Automotive Products and Fords. During my five years at Dormer High I read Shakespeare in Elizabethan English (I don’t think that there was a bi-lingual version in those days) and regular reading included A Clockwork Orange, Dickens (unabridged), Hardy. The poetry of the Romantics was familiar to us. In music we listened to Britten, Prokoviev, Sibelius, to mention a few.

    When I left school (without any O Levels) I spent the rest of my teens in dead-end jobs. It could be argued that all my education did nothing for me, but it provided me with a richer life than the factory work and weekend drinking or football matches.

    Whilst I did go onto higher education in my late thirties I believe that this would not have been a consideration had not the seeds of expectation been sown in my secondary education.

    Much of what I experienced at school is rejected now. The cane is seen as barbaric and yet it wasn’t the punishment we feared as much as the fact that the teacher had the authority to administer it.

    I do not think that teachers hold much authority these days (does any profession?) and their teaching seems not geared to producing the ‘Leaders Of Tomorrow’ as much as churning out a generation that are no better than robots (though there will always be Carlas in the world who will all want to go that one step further). In that respect teaching has as much value to society as the factory work I did.

    However as long as there are people to challenge and inspire and have a vision, then that doesn’t have to be the end of it all. Great music will still be composed; great books will still be written and great discoveries will still be made.

    Finally: You can never be ‘blinded by optimism’!

  3. Education should, in my opinion, always be a question primarily of drawing out what is inherent but it can’t end there and this article brings up several interesting ideas related to that.

    Reading is especially good at the communicative aspect of development because with a sensitive, shared approach, even the most reluctant reader can be helped to grasp ‘the hand across the generations’, as Bennet so beautifully expresses it in ‘The History Boys’. (Actually, this play is a good place to begin to look more deeply at different types of education, since the teachers at the centre represent what should be complementary aspects of learning but so often seem mutually exclusive. )

    One can only ever speak from personal experience in these things but I try to encourage anyone I teach not to say a book is bad but to say why they don’t like it; this is often a very fertile area and what seems ‘awful’ to one reader might be great to another (I’ll explain how I learnt this further down).

    It isn’t encouraging when the education system is simply dismissed, though, especially by those involved with it. I don’t see any reason for pride in failing exams, anymore than it should be seen as a reason for shame. If one takes a superior stance about exams it reduces the pleasure so many feel in achieving exam success. I teach a great many adults privately who struggle very hard to pass their English exams and it would break their hearts if they knew people were somehow saying they were unworthy for valuing what those with higher qualifications dismiss so lightly and even with ‘pride’.

    For a great many people, education excludes and that has always been the case. We can all cite books we were forced to read and grew to hate, I’m sure. I well remember loathing Hardy because I had been made to read ‘Tess’ and when I embarked on my MA, Phil Davis responded to my dismissal of Hardy by saying that I ‘wasn’t qualified’ to do so: how right he was! With his superb teaching and that of Brian Nellist I came to love Hardy and would now never dismiss any author’s work as bad just because I don’t like it – as a matter of fact, I don’t ‘like’ what I have read of Keats’ poetry, in general, but I can see its greatness.

    Nevertheless, let us be pragmatic; in order to progress in most areas of life then we need those apparently despised GCSEs etc.: try to get into Liverpool University at 18 without them – I wish you luck!

    Finally, I don’t think immoderate language is helpful or appropriate (I refer to the words used by Dr. Routledge above). Surely we can do better than resort to vulgarities like ‘effing’, can’t we? I certainly hope so!

  4. Immoderate and vulgar language is an entirely appropriate response to terrible teaching, uninspiring curriculum and low expectations. Perhaps if we’d had more immoderate, vulgar and impassioned language on this subject decades ago this kind of campaigning article wouldn’t be necessary now.


  5. I thought ‘the pledge’ was to do with drink – shows how much I know! (Mind you, my grandma was a scouse barmaid during the war so that’s my background coming out – I’m proud to say!)

    Dr Routledge, you know how firmly I believe in freedom of speech and I totally agree with you that all slang has its place, I just don’t think that place is in a discussion about the English Language and Education: I applaud your passion, shall we say, but not, perhaps, your mode of expression but we’ll just agree to differ, shall we?

    Of course it would be plain daft if, for example, ‘The Sopranos’ all started saying ‘Oh, dear!’, which is what makes shows like ‘Grange Hill’ so unrepresentative: kids swear and we all do at times. It doesn’t really bother me except that there are so many better ways to say how strongly we all feel about Education. I’m actually more bothered about the issues that have been addressed here.

    However, if I came across as narrow minded, then let me just say that those who know me will tell you that nothing could be farther from the truth!

  6. Thanks, Mark, your posts are always very moving and apposite.

    The sad thing is that teaching itself has been so devalued that it is difficult to get young prople interested in taking up the profession. I recall once being told, as if it were something derogatory, ‘Well, you’re a teacher, Sue’ – I think the implication was that this was somehow degrading or limiting.

    We all know the foolish adage that ‘those who can, do, those who can’t, teach’ and the modern world does not give much credit to those of us at the ‘chalk face’. Nevertheless, I think teaching is the most important job in the world and whilst we continue to deride it, things won’t improve.

    We all owe a debt to our teachers, even the bad ones: ‘Education teaches you to spell experience’, as they say.

  7. I grew up in a warm and caring home where there were no books. However, I can remember listening to the wireless (as it was called then), to Marjorie Anderson, who said ‘are you sitting comfortably, then I’ll begin’, or words to that effect. This was a programme called Listen With Mother and it was broadcast every weekday, just after lunch. My imagination was fired up as I listened to the stories.
    School did very little to build on this experience. I can remember learning to read; Janet and John and other ‘home readers’. Reading, it seemed to me was chore; read the book, get mum or dad to sign a record to say that I had ticked the required boxes and everything in the garden was rosy.
    When I moved up to junior school we tended to read books as a class. The teacher would have her copy, from which she read out loud; we shared a volume with another classmate. I can vividly remember trying to follow the teacher’s every spoken word by tracing the words along the page with my finger. My friend and the rest of the class did the same. There was no pleasure at all in the exercise. We put all of our efforts into not losing our place on the page. Needless to say none of us had the foggiest idea what narrative was about. We were not encouraged to use our imagination; to let the words flow around and move through us. They weren’t around (as far as I know) when I was at school but I sense an analogy here with the ‘Magic Eye’ images. You know the ones; you press your nose up against what seems to be a page full of random colours and squiggles and suddenly, when you begin to slowly pull the paper away from your face, hey presto, there is a wonderful 3D picture.
    This kind of perception was not encouraged to surface. I can remember having to sit through J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Little Grey Men by ‘BB’ and being absolutely clueless.

    I did not enjoy reading to myself until I won a prize, an illustrated book of bible stories, at Sunday school. I was probably about 6 years old and suddenly I was aware of being transported into a different world. I began to see that there was something interesting in what reading could do for me: present opportunities for me to take part in adventures; to travel; to be happy or sad, to be moved by words.

  8. It’s funny how different our experienes are, isn’t it? I grew up in a two up, two down in a street just like Corrie, but, like you, Barb, I had a very loving home and I remember the programmes you mention. My mum says I used to memorise books and tell her if she missed bits! She read my brother and me the original Grimms’ Tales (she had been given fairy tales as a school prize and treasured them). The tales terrified and thrilled us but we didn’t have a lot of books and certainly weren’t an ‘academic household’.

    I went to an inner city primary but we had fanastic teachers who gave us so much of themselves as well as ‘book-learned’ education. I remember one teacher reading Browning to us and another bringing me books from home when he saw how keen I was. They also told us about their own lives. One had lived in Cape Town and witnessed apartheid in all its horrible reality. I’m sure these stories helped us understand more than we would have otherwise about racial prejudice.

    My point is that these were caring people; teachers we loved and who loved us. We have lost something somewhere but it isn’t just on one side. Everyone seems to blame everyone else but that gets us nowhere, does it?

    I’m sure, in fact I’m absolutely certain, that teachers like I had still exist and if we praise the good it might do more than criticising the bad. All our memories are different and that’s as much to do with ‘us’ as ‘them’, I think.

    Mind you, I had a horrible Maths teacher at grammar school and I can’t add up to this day!

    ps. Could someone post Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘In Mrs Tilcher’s Class’? It says it all, really.

  9. I was wondering about this with regards to Maths in particular. Back when I was at school (I turned 16 in 1986) we had textbooks that were a good inch thick and which fit into a reasonably big coat pocket. I was looking in Waterstones for a book on Maths so I could brush up my O-level maths skills & maybe take up where I left off with my A-level pure maths (which I’d found hard at the time & ended up flunking out of but now that I’m a computer programmer of many years’ experience I thought I owed it to myself & to my profession to learn some of the more low-level stuff. And I’d read a bit about pure maths being the one provable science, so it struck me as something inherently worthwhile.
    If you look in the average high street book shop for school & college level maths textbooks, you wil find them larger than A4 sized, like a tabloid newspaper, and about as thick. This says to me that there cannot possibly be the same in-depth treatment of the concepts that they had in my day. The books that contain numerous examples as well as questions to practice with are very few & far between, and you won’t find them in the average store. This further says to me that the average school therefore has little truck with practice of any worthwhile nature. What kind of ignoramuses are we “educating” here? I am now loathe to consign my kids over to a system that doesn’t just seem to be failing but actively shies away from doing its job. Where is the Trivium in schools these days, the pillars of logic, grammar & rhetoric that formed the basis of the education of all the great minds from the Enlightenment to the 1950’s? We seem to be throwing roofing tiles up into the air & vainly calling it a house – where’s the foundation, & the load-supporting walls? No wonder I see kids online writing like illiterates – the majority are, it seems.

  10. I am sympathetic to much of what Ms Gruder-Poni writes in her article, but based on how she describes contemporary secondary school education in the UK, it doesn’t seem to have changed a great deal from when I attended in the 1980s (although we were certainly required to do a lot more homework than her students). I went to a selective state grammar school that ranked in the top 10 in the country at the time, yet it was still essential not to appear too clever so as not to get bullied.

    Most of what I know about the English language and literature was picked up from reading and from my parents, who are both keen readers, not from teachers. There was little attempt to teach us English grammar in secondary school, although strangely, we were taught grammar in depth in French, German and Latin. I learn how to use the semi colon (finally) in my 30s from Lynne Truss’s incredibly useful book on punctuation.

    The obsession with celebrities, making things ‘relevant’ and looking down on ‘high culture’ is a feature of UK society as a whole at the moment, not just the school system, although it is depressing to hear that some teachers just give in to that rather than trying to work against it.

    However, it is sometimes necessary to grin and bear it while you are getting qualified, on the basis that once you are you can find a role where you can change things rather than just moaning about them! There are other ways to make a contribution as a teacher/educator other than teaching in this sort of school.

  11. I cannot help but reply, even though tiredness is beginning to get the better of me.
    I went to a Catholic school in Chelmsley wood, I began there as quite a bright child, I had lots of enthusiasm, my mother had been to a grammer school in Ireland and had invested in me a love of reading. I read Oscar Wilde at a very young age. Somehow I plummeted at secondary school I remember feeling overwhelmed, I became very shy and eventually disengaged from mainstream school life. I attended only to get my mark and meet some friends. Whose fault it was I’m not sure, there are many factors to be considered. Nevertheless I embarked in my late twenties on a degree in Combined Arts and have ever since been trying to teach English Literature. I do not consider myself an academic, I just love reading. It astonishes me now after instilling that same passion in my daughter,to see that she is not encouraged to read at school. She is at a good school but the teachers are young and it seems uninterested themselves in developing a child’s vocabulary or advocating interesting well written text. They allow her to be lazy and unstructured. I have become an ogre and if she can she hides her work from me.
    Now I work as a Skill For Life Tutor with Nacro, we have to teach functional Skills, the kids learn how to put as many pieces of punctuation in a sentence as they can withou I have to say much focus or understanding. It drives me mad, the criteria is bland and if I were to go through it most of it is slightly grammatically incorrect.
    Nobody really seems to care; I am after all being pedantic, kids don’t need to speak the Queens English. Still I worry more that they are becoming dehumanised, vain, and robotic . They have little or no empathy with each other or those that are much worse off. It worries me also that they are unable to find pleasure in how they interact with each other and the world. Occassionally I have a burst of reading to children in school and they love it. My younger children enjoy this quality time perhaps more than anything else we do together.
    We should argue for more time in our lives now, so that we can sustain the pleasures from the past and still embark upon the pleasures of the present and the future . I am constantly struggling to read as much as I would like because I have so many other things to do. My daughter gets her entertainment from the computer, even my boys love to spend time on the Wii and Xbox. It all takes our time,I don’t want to argue for one or the other I want us to be able to have both.
    Thankfully there are those of us that are keen to preserve a quality to the language we use to read and write with. Let us hope our children will endeavour to procure for themselves a vocabulary that is as rich and illuminating as the English Language has always been. I hope that they do not seek to change everything but I am also aware that language and literature are not static objects, they are as open to development as the world itself is.

  12. I wrote the article. I’m glad people are reading it! I’m writing to respond to Josie, whose November post I just noticed:

    I did grin and bear it. Had I written the piece on my own behalf, there would have been much more about what went on at the Department of Educational Studies. I would have written about the inane lectures, or the mornings we PGCE students spent playing games like (for example) a cross between catch and rock-paper-scissors — good fun, but what did it have to do with being a secondary English teacher? But honestly, who cares if an adult wastes 10 months of her life? The tragedy is that millions of young people are wasting the most important years of their lives in a failed system. I wrote the article for them.

    Josie recommends making a difference in another kind of school, which is what’s what I’ve done. I don’t think it’s possible for one person to make a difference in such a thoroughly rotten system. That’s another reason why I wrote the article: nothing will change in these schools without pressure from outside.

    Readers might be interested in the following posts from various sources:

    My stepson is supposed to be an above average-GCSE candidate and yet when he had English coursework from the school, essays appeared to require just filling in the blanks. A sheet was provided with a sentence followed by room for him to write in a line or sometimes two lines of his own text. They were even directed to the lines in the book/play that were needed. When he couldn’t work out what was needed to fill in the gap I quizzed him about the plot and he wouldn’t know. He hadn’t even read all the book/play.
    A school can legally use this scaffolding technique but yet the pupils therefore don’t actually have to know anything. It wasn’t like that in my day, although I believe we were the last year to get 100% coursework for English Literature GCSE due to cheating! I personally don’t believe that any child who hands in an essay that has been “scaffolded” should achieve an A or B grade – what credit should a child get who has achieved an A grade without scaffolding?
    Bec, south Wales

    June 18th,
    9:38 am
    …I am all for rewarding teachers for good work, but the manner in which this is done needs to be carefully considered. I used to work as a teacher in the US and now work in the UK. We have performance based pay related to student achievement that is measured on standardized tests and a coursework system that is “moderated” externally by an exam board. I, my department and my school are all judged on those results. I am encouraged to “bump up” grades on pieces of coursework that can’t be moderated and I spend my time making kids rewrite every piece of work that doesn’t meet their target grade. It is miserable for them and miserable for me. I often feel that I am even misleading society by coaching students so that they achieve grades on written work that I know they would never achieve on their own. I actually would prefer not to have the performance related pay and maintain my integrity as a teacher. However, as my school and department are also judged, I get a lot of pressure from above…
    — Posted by Teaching Overseas

    MarkHoward – 10:58pm Dec 22, 2004 GMT (# 120 of 121)

    Far worse than anything Prince Charles may have said about people not getting ideas above their station, I heard from two right-on school teachers.

    We were giving our time to help Coventry Trades Council celebrate its 100th anniversary.

    One of the trades unionists said, “let’s sponsor a debate between schools about the role of unions today”.

    The teachers piped up: “Ooh, can’t have debates. Elitist. Grammar schools and all that.”

    I was gobsmacked. “What about Ben Tillet,” I asked, “the shoemaker whose eloquent speeches inspired the London dockers? What’s so wrong about learning to speak and inspire people? Don’t working class kids have the right to be taught to communicate?”

    There was silence from the right-on teachers. They were not the first or the last enemies of knowledge that I met in the teaching trade. But they were enemies of talent, enemies of aspiration, enemies of children.

    [from a comments board on The Guardian’s website]

    (The links are probably dead by now.)

  13. er… “which is what’s what I’ve done” in the first line of my third paragraph should be “which is what I’ve done.” Sorry!

  14. I found this article to be very frightening and confirming what Alistair Gray says in his postscript to his Book of Prefaces – that the education he had recieved in the 1940s is now seen as being useless for working class children.How did a concern for the alienating effect of academic education turn into this strange mixture of self defeating contempt for any kind of knowledge and condecension towards students.

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