Schools tests: arrogance, subservience and some courage

Presented recently with a grammar question for 11-year-olds, schools  minister Nick Gibb failed to distinguish between a word used as a preposition and as a subordinating conjunction.

The sentence concerned was, ‘I went to the cinema after I’d eaten my dinner’. Mr. Gibb was asked whether the word ‘after’ was functioning as a subordinating conjunction or as a preposition.

His failure to answer the question correctly, and then to attempt to brush aside criticism is an example of the sort of arrogance of which politicians are capable. Their interference, and teachers’ willingness to inflict on their charges tests which they condemn as harmful, should be a source of despair for anyone concerned about educational standards in the UK.

It is not difficult to show how the word, “after” can be used in these two ways. This is the way I explain these things in a practical book about using the English language.*

Consider the different ways in which these two sentences are constructed, and the effect of this.

  1. I went to the cinema after I’d eaten my dinner.
  2. I went to the cinema after dinner.

The first sentence has two finite verbs, two actions, went and had eaten. After functions here as a subordinating conjunction which brings together two sentences, I went to the cinema and I’d eaten my dinner. The word follows what becomes the main clause in the new sentence and introduces a subordinate clause.

In the second sentence the word after links the verb went with a noun, dinner that is used here to refer to a time of day, the time when dinner is eaten. A word that functions in this way is a preposition.

The effect of all this? The second sentence is short and succinct. When did I go to the cinema? After dinner. The first one is longer – ten words instead of seven – and dinner is not simply a time of day but is the time when I did a particular thing: I actually ate my dinner before going to the cinema. In the second sentence I might not have eaten anything, but it was after dinner time that I went to the cinema.

Literacy depends on using the language effectively and accurately, not on explaining how it works, and is as much dependent on our listening and reading as on being able to explain it. Mr. Gibb is probably not illiterate; he’s just a politician.

The Times education correspondent, Nicola Woolcock, quoted a spokesman for the DES who warned that without these tests children “risk falling behind and struggling for the rest of their lives.” This is a nonsense. Earlier this year an OECD report on literacy revealed that over the last thirty years, while UK governments have sought increasingly to micro-manage schools, this country’s standing had plummeted from top to bottom of a list of developed countries.

We all of us learn to speak our language perfectly adequately without understanding any grammatical terms or rules. Neither are they essential for the effective use of the written form of the language. Four of the terms listed I have never come across nor felt a need to use in forty years of teaching and examining English and some of them, I suspect, have been brought into circulation with more of an eye for personal promotion or aggrandizement.  Importantly however, an understanding of most of these concepts is helpful when discussing how language is used but only once a basis competence with the written language has been achieved.

Just as we learn to speak by listening, so we learn about the written language by reading. Better by far for young people to read as widely and frequently as possible and for so-called experts in these matters to acknowledge that to read the most popular daily paper in the UK a reading age of only seven is required.

At least some parents took action by withdrawing their children from school when tests were scheduled. Perhaps they could persuade teachers who complain, rightly, about these tests to join them.

*What, How and Why: a manual of better English.

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