After ten years in farming I trained, as a mature student, to teach English and continued my studies while I set out on a teaching career. From a headship in the maintained sector I moved, via the independent sector, to the world’s most expensive international school where I ran the English department and continued to learn more about young people and teaching.

Along the way I became an examiner for O and A-level English and for the International Baccalaureate and began to write: both fiction and two English text books. When our children were small, my wife and I fostered a school reject and then, much later, I helped my wife to run a girls’ boarding house. After retirement I supported local families who were home-schooling their children and continued to write.

Here I have brought together some views on matters of importance for a younger generation, matters that generate some heat from time to time, but which we do not seem able to resolve in a manner that leads to sustainable development. The one area of hope that I have encountered is the International Baccalaureate which has earned sufficient trust on the part of parents and universities for it not to be troubled by politicians.

My one failure at school was English literature for which I later became an examiner. Do not give up is what I taught my students.



In 1987 the Chief Examiner of London’s O-level examination board put it like this:

A sixteen year-old who passes this exam should be able to walk into a solicitor’s office, be given a set of notes and turn them into a clear and accurate letter. Could we be that confident in nowadays?

In 2007 I scrutinised English papers set by the Cambridge Examinations Board

Advice given to candidates taking the GCSE paper was as follows – This particular answer will be marked for the accuracy of your writing. Candidates for the IGCSE were told – X marks will be available for the quality of your writing throughout the paper, and at O-level (Still available as an international examination) – Mistakes in spelling, punctuation and grammar may be penalised in any part of the paper.

With politicians requiring more than the 25% of candidates passing O-level English Language when the GCSE was introduced in 1988, lowering the standards expected of candidates enabled politicians to claim that more candidates were able to pass the examination then sat by the country’s sixteen year-olds. But of course a greater pass rate in an examination does nothing for a generation’s level of literacy.

In 2009 I submitted material for an A-level textbook to a publisher. For several years I had examined English, at O-level and A-level, then for the International Baccalaureate. I had taught the IGCSE for several years abroad and was writing an IGCSE text book for another publisher. This publisher turned down the material I had submitted as too sophisticated. I pointed out that it represented the standards I expected of my IB students and suggested that expectations of A-level students had evidently declined. She agreed with me.

In  2013 Sean Coughlan, a BBC News education correspondent, reported that England’s young adults trail the world in literacy and maths.

Despite decades of rising exam results, young adults have shown little progress: with pass marks decided by the Department for Education. This should be no wonder. What matters here is that despite an apparent improvement in standards represented by these rising examination results, actual standards of literacy and numeracy are in decline. A major study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows how England’s 16 to 24-year-olds are falling behind their Asian and European counterparts. England was 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy out of 24 countries.

The OECD’s Andreas Schleicher warned of a shrinking pool of skilled workers. Unlike other developed countries, the study also showed that young people in England were no better at these tests than older people, in the 55 to 65 age range.

When this is weighted with other factors, such as the socio-economic background of people taking the test, it shows that England is the only country in the survey where results are going backwards – with the older cohort better than the younger.

The study shows that there are 8.5 million adults in England and Northern Ireland with the numeracy levels of a 10-year-old. “This shocking report shows England has some of the least literate and numerate young adults in the developed world,” said Skills Minister Matthew Hancock.

So, why is good English important?
It is far more than a school subject; it is the means of showing and communicating our understanding of all sorts of things, in other school subjects and elsewhere. It is also the means of recording all sorts of items to which we can return later with confidence that the writer’s purpose will be clear to us.

Summary skills enable us to extract the main points from a piece of writing and convey them quickly and easily to a large number of people and this can be of great economic importance – in a large organisation for example.

The written language follows the spoken language so studying the construction of written material will also help us to order and express our ideas more effectively, not only when we write, but when we speak. Whether we read aloud, or in silence, when in fact we are as it were imaging the sound of the spoken language, we are presenting ourselves with the variety of ways in which to express ourselves.

Writing and speaking more clearly makes it easier for others to understand us. If we cannot be bothered to speak and write clearly, why should others take any notice? Good English is part of good manners.
Reading your own work aloud – an important way of checking what you have written.

When we read our work silently we can “read over” our errors because we know what we intended to write. Young people must overcome childish embarrassment and read their work aloud so that any errors are more easily detected.
In class my teenage students had a weekly period of compulsory reading.

They read in silence and could only reject something, and choose an alternative, once they had read ten pages. This satisfied their sense that they were entitled to choose what to do with their time, and kept them usefully and cheerfully engaged. Short stories are invaluable: Graham Greene’s The Case for the Defence and The Destructors, and Roald Dahl’s anthology, Tales of the Unexpected stand out.



At primary school in the nineteen-fifties we had a bookcase full of reading books which we were encouraged to explore whenever we had finished a piece of work or had time to spare. There I discovered The Cruel Sea, Nicholas Montserrat’s notable account of the Battle of the Atlantic in World War Two and Farmer’s Glory an account of farming from Victorian times written by A.G. Street a farmer and broadcaster who became a hero of mine. Holidays in the West Country led me to R.D. Blackmore’s Lorna Doone.

Before I had approached anywhere near adolescence I had caught the reading habit which has never left me. It was only later, at grammar school, that my adolescent cynicism and disdain for school were provoked, on being expected to read Ballet Shoes. Fortunately for me, the reading habit had already established itself. However, my tastes were never aligned with those of most of my English teachers and I managed to fail just one O-level, English literature, the subject for which I became an examiner some years later.

This next item I found on a website and was duly impressed

From Reading Aloud to Children by Leah Davies, M.Ed. (August 28th 2018 Childs Work Support)

Listening comprehension is vitally important if students are to achieve reading comprehension. Children who come from homes with minimal language enrichment need to hear new words if they are to become proficient readers. Reading aloud to children, even if only for a short time each day, enhances their language skills, as well as their love of literature and learning.

In 1983 the Commission on Reading was created and funded by the U. S. Department of Education to study the best way to increase knowledge and reading in children. The commission evaluated ten thousand research studies over the course of two years and reported their results in Becoming a Nation of Readers. Among the findings: “The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.” The study supported reading aloud in classrooms throughout all grades.*

Experts agree that the way to motivate children to read on their own is by arousing their interest and curiosity. Reading exciting stories to children helps them associate reading with pleasure. When the teacher and children share suspense, emotions, and enjoy fascinating characters, their relationship is strengthened. In addition, when children listen to a teacher read, they learn grammatical form and story structure. Reading stories, poems, books and factual texts to children builds their vocabulary, attention span and knowledge base so that they can speak, read, and write more fluently.

Students need to be exposed to nonfiction, as well as fiction. Teachers may begin with simple nonfiction books to introduce science, math and social studies concepts and then move on to more difficult texts. Model reading for information and investigation by stopping and asking the children to review, define and/or comment on the material.

For example, stop reading and say, “Let’s see, what did she say about insects that only live twenty-four hours?” Let the children respond and then say something like, “I wonder what insect she will tell us about next?” Sometimes teachers have the children make a picture dictionary to go along with a story, chart what happened, or create graphics to further understanding. Involving students reinforces inquisitiveness and cognitive skills. Listening to teachers read nonfiction material increases student’s ability to read and comprehend newspaper articles, directions, complicated writings, as well as to perform well on tests that require an extensive vocabulary.

Another method teachers can use when reading aloud is to pause and have their students pair off to discuss the material. When children participate this way, they practice their listening, thinking, and speaking skills. They also pay closer attention to what is read so that they will be able to talk about it. When the teacher stops, the students turn to their partner and relate what they heard, as well as listen to their partner’s thoughts. After a few minutes, the teacher begins to read again.

D.H.Lawrence, one of my favourite writers wrote:

It is the way our sympathy flows and recoils that really determines our lives. And here lies the vast importance of the novel properly handled. It can inform and lead into new places the flow of our sympathetic consciousness, and it can lead our sympathy away and recoil from things gone dead. (Lady Chatterly’s Lover)

These words served to remind me of the importance of fiction in leading us to an appreciation and understanding of other people, whether real or fictitious. Twenty years ago a phone call to a cousin who had fostered two half brothers from a broken home revealed that one of them had killed himself with drugs. By the time I put down the phone I had already decided that I was going to write a novel; people should know something of how life could turn out for the likes of those two unfortunate boys.

This was a boy whose inadequate father had abandoned his inadequate mother. By the time she had involved herself with another inadequate father and produced a half brother for the first boy, the boys were taken into care and were fostered, too late really, by my cousin and his wife who could not have done more to try to help them.

This was a boy who was overjoyed to be offered an apprenticeship by West Ham. On his first day with the club he was asked what he intended to study on day-release at college. At this he scoffed – he had not left school to go back into the classroom. What, he was asked, what would happen should he sustain an injury that would finish any hope of a playing career. Did he not realise that the club had a responsibility to see that this possibility was taken into account if it was going to take him on?

He walked out and just a few years later he was dead.

Illiteracy is not just inconvenient, it’s deadly – Tomiwa Owolade, November 14 2022, in The Times

I will never forget the first time reading gave me pleasure: I was nine and in a corner of my primary school library. I was reading a book called Eagle Strike by Anthony Horowitz when my mind suddenly clicked open. This might sound silly. After all, it is just a children’s book. But I stopped being alone at that moment. This is the gift of reading: it makes you less alone.

Many people will never get to this stage. Those who are functionally illiterate can’t read for practical reasons. Emails, payslips, train timetables, road signs, letters: these basic aspects of adulthood appear to them like hieroglyphics. They can’t even read to their own children. But there is another tragedy: they can’t read for pleasure. From the greatest works of literature to the subtitles of magnificent foreign films, their life is culturally impoverished.


Once parents have accepted that a good standard of literacy is important for their children then it soon becomes easy to explain the importance of their reading well and widely. Grandparents will remember Jack Ashley, a deaf MP whose voice was always clear but distinctive, a reminder of the difficulties faced by deaf people. Deaf people can struggle to produce the sounds of speech, which they may never have heard, and so I explain that people who do not read handicap themselves by not encountering the written form of our language which all educated adults are expected to use effectively.



An article in The Times listed a number of splendid teaching texts, including The Wind in the Willows and Lord of the Flies. This is part of my response which appeared on The Times website.

Every English teacher should try starting Great Expectations by telling the class to make themselves really comfortable – encourage them to rest their heads on their desks. Read quietly until Magwitch transfixes Pip with the words, “Hold your noise,” which should be bellowed forth as loudly as possible. The students will sit up, shocked and then amused that you have played such a game with them, and they will continue to listen to you.

The suggested reading is all fiction; for some boys in particular, non-fiction can be more interesting. More of my response to advice in The Times article.

For me it was Scouting for Boys, The Famer’s Weekly and Trains Illustrated. To my students I have recommended Neville Shute’s autobiography, Slide Rule; not only does he provide an explanation of the construction of an airship, but also the political and economic history surrounding the first Labour government’s involvement in the R100 and R101 project. Yes, readers will stare at pictures and diagrams, but understanding such things is important, so important that we expect engineers, like Neville Shute, to write effectively about them. Sports and fashion items, for example can also attract interest but, I would suggest, early weaning from life style and celebrity pieces will help to avoid self-limiting addiction.

The emergence of a solution

Faced with coaching a school reject and a school refuser I had to find ways to engage them. At nineteen I had bought a second-hand engine for my ancient Ford Prefect; I had failed to check the oil level and the original engine had seized up. An engineer friend lent me his workshop and told me to strip down the replacement engine and prepare it thoroughly before installing it in my precious car. This I did, checking the tightness of the bearings, grinding in the valves, de-coking it and replacing the piston rings. Imagine my delight when the engine started with the first pull of the starter. I had learnt how the engine worked by dismantling and reassembling it.

I found then that I had gained the respect of my two young friends when I explained that in much the same way we could make better use of our language if we understood how it worked. Dismantle it, demonstrate, explain, encourage; this is how my second textbook, What, How and Why: a manual of better English, works.

I explain the importance of good English, to help students be their best, as adults, to communicate accurately and clearly. This was the honesty that these young people appreciated and they helped willingly with early drafts of the book and quickly grasped the importance of good English. We broke the language down into individual words then reassembled them, building up phrases, clauses, and then sentences and paragraphs. By this time they had found the confidence to express themselves clearly and effectively.

Soon afterwards, I was able take the book into an army prison where it was accepted by inmates who readily took to it.

Young people engaged

Using “What, How and Why,” Peter helped Lawrence turn his results around in just a few lessons, from ungraded to a respectable final ‘C’ grade GCSE. Lawrence’s mother

You have created a virtual classroom where there is no sarcastic teacher and no bullies or disruptives, but only a teacher who encourages students. You have led me back to the classroom, prepared to learn this time. James 18 – a school failure

The sentences in the activity were funny which helps to engage the reader in them and makes me want to get the answers right. You keep saying “we” and it’s like talking with you. The sentences are so different from normal English books it doesn’t feel like actual school at all. Ben – 14 year-old school refuser



dunno pub Charles Kimpton 2004 (ISBN 0-9547614-0-5) Fifteen year-old Jon has never known his father and struggles to grow up. Arts Council Award.

Greatly convincing, as far from patronising as possible. Independent on Sunday

Fluent, engaging writing for adults and teenagers alike. Sunday Express

Gripped. I read it in just three hours. Recommended to all youth justices. The Magistrate

IGCSE English – First Language pub Heinemann 2011 (ISBN 978-0-435991-18-0)

Edexcel International GCSE English Language A pub Pearson 2016 (ISBN 978-0-435-18256-4)

Edexcel International GCSE English Language B pub Pearson 2017 (ISBN 978-0-435-18257-1)

The Redundant Car Park pub Independently 2020 (ASIN ‏ ‎B088B4M6J9)  Desperate to kick-start a moribund economy a UK government sets Essex Man to work.

What, How and Why: a manual of better English pub The Book Guild 2021 (ISBN 978-1-913913-17-5)

The kind of text which we need in the education system in this country – a rich and wide-ranging resource which encourages the kind of learning which is associated with higher attainment in exams, through a deeper understanding of language structures. Tim Oates Research Director Cambridge Assessment

Published on The Times website – my advice on reading –

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