My two teenage sons escaped the worst of the current assessment and testing regime but I still recall the horror of Y6. They learnt nothing that year. All they did was practice for the SATS. I watched my children transform from bright, engaged, curious 11 year olds into bored, frustrated, school phobic ones. And things have got significantly worse since they were in primary school. Now we have the SPaG test.
‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.’ I lost count of the number of times that was said to me but even as a small child, I never really believed it. Because it’s total rubbish.
Words are powerful, powerful things. They can wound. They can hurt. They can destroy. But they can also create. Characters, landscapes – whole universes can be conjured out of nothing.
Teaching a child to harness the power of words is a wonderful thing. The reading and writing – the mechanics – is just the beginning of it. Children also need to discover the wonder of language.
And it’s here that something is going very badly wrong with our Education system.
I won the Carnegie Medal in 2015 and I have no idea what a fronted adverbial, a subordinate clause or a morphology changing inflexion is. I can’t see why anybody – other than a linguistics professor – would ever need to know. Why are we teaching primary school children something that is both age inappropriate and completely and utterly pointless?
We have this extraordinary thing called language. It should be handed down like a gift from generation to generation. Right now it’s like giving a child a puppy and telling them – ‘No, no, no! You can’t play with it, you can’t have fun with it, you can’t take it for a walk or explore with it! I want to you to put it up here on this table and dissect it. Cut out each out and put it in a separate box.
Label them. Make sure you get the spelling right.’
Once that puppy is dead on the table, it’s not going anywhere. And this is what we’re doing. We are killing the wonder, we are depriving our children of any joy and delight in the spoken and the written word.
I’m a writer – of course this matters to me: words are my business. Does it matter to the world in general?
Yes. It does.
Words enable us to harness our emotions, to express our thoughts, to develop and communicate our ideas. Without a command of language, our ability to imagine is impaired. We are not teaching our children to think for themselves, we are teaching them to jump through hoops. Academics are already finding that undergraduates are less and less able to think critically and independently.
The government knows that harm is being done to our children and young people. They have been told time and time and time again and yet they continue to ignore expert advice.
Is it ignorance? Arrogance? Possibly.
Or is this a cynical and deliberate strategy?
In my Carnegie Medal speech I asked the question – is a population that is disengaged, apathetic, uninterested easier to manage, manipulate and control?
I think the answer to that question is becoming depressingly obvious.
Tanya Landman is a Carnegie Award winning author of books for children and young people