From Bad to Verse

So, Education Secretary, Michael Gove’s latest plan to improve standards is to make every five year old recite poetry to their peers. Not surprisingly, many of our colleagues are angry, and teacher morale takes another turn downwards, inevitably heading towards despair and despondency.

My views on Mr Gove – and Education Secretaries in general, are outlined in some detail in my keynote ‘Something Better Change’ and I’ll not repeat myself here – other than to reiterate that I don’t believe he knows what he’s talking about. There is a madness in his method and I fear we are only moments from his realisation that he could kill two birds with one stone and insist that every child recites the King James bible, that he so kindly delivered to every school in England. Sadly he only sent one copy to each school but let’s not be downhearted. There are enough pages for one per child and with a little planning I’m sure we could rise to the challenge.

Why stop at the bible? As Mr Gove’s other cunning plan is to drag every child kicking and screaming  to lessons in coding then I suggest we make children recite the code of famous web pages. They could start with the cbeebies website, progress to Newsround, and by keystage 4, they could be reciting the code from The Department for Work and Pensions as some kind of bizarre preparation for .. er.. life.

I am however a little uncertain about how I feel about this reciting malarkey. As a child I delighted in learning poems by heart and took great pride in being able to recite dozens of Spike Milligan’s and, later, Roger McGough’s poetry. As a GCE Literature student I learnt many poems by Wilfred Owen and as an A Level student I could quote chunks of Shakespeare, and the theories of sociology including Marx, Parsons and Margaret Mead. I confess that these later examples were through necessity rather than pleasure.

Although it wasn’t really my kind of humour many of my pals could recite, and would without encouragement, sketches by Monty Python and entire songs/poems by John Cooper Clarke. Even today my peers in their middle years will, at the drop of a tweet, quote verbatim from that Monty Python sketch ‘You were lucky. When I was a lad we lived in cardboard box in’t middle o’ road..’

I spent 15 years teaching in an inner city secondary school with lots of challenges and huge rewards. As an English teacher,  I was at the bleeding front line of literacy and had the privilege to work with a couple of truly inspirational, and not a little unorthodox teachers.

Wendy was quirky, passionate about our kids and worked endlessly and tirelessly to produce resources and activities to encourage our hundreds of reluctant readers and writers. Our kids were weak readers and writers and, add to this their resolve to only speak in their Geordie dialect, we had what could only be described as a significant challenge on our hands.

You can’t pass an exam if your written answers are laced with dialect – even if much of our nation’s literature features the same.

Wendy had an idea. Actually she had two ideas which were born in the mid 80’s for very different reasons. The first was The Reading and Recitation Competition. Every child in the school would be encouraged to learn a poem or practice a piece of prose and perform in front of (their classmates in the first instance) an audience of parents, students, teachers and governors.

Why did we do this? Because many of our students were weak readers. Ashamed of their stumblings and inability to read words correctly they would use all kinds of disruptive activity to ensure no one heard them. We gave them the chance to practice. The opportunity to improve and achieve. The chance to have pride in their performance. And it was a performance – no marks for simply reciting the words. We wanted gestures, expressions, pauses, winks, nods and yes, even props. I can’t pretend we had a thousand entries in our competition – many kids were still unreachable. It was one of many strategies we tried, and over the years The Reading and Recitation Competition became an important and valued part of the school calendar.

The other great Wendy Idea came from a tragedy. My long teaching practice was at this school and you could say they thought I was so good they gave me a job when I qualified. Another interpretation of the facts could be as a Newly Qualified Teacher I was cheap as chips and they might as well have me as anyone else..

On my teaching practice I shared teaching with several teachers and one, a very special one, was Steve Charlton. He was an amazing teacher, a good man and cherished colleague. He didn’t tell his colleagues he had leukaemia. During my teaching practice he was absent a few times and would talk vaguely about ‘blood tests’ when asked if he was ok.

So he died.


In a blink of an eye.

Or so it seemed. Here comes Wendy’s idea; we would hold The Charlton Memorial Evening – a celebration of literature and all that Steve loved.

The evening became an annual event. Teachers from across the curriculum would read, recite and perform passages from literature, all on a theme chosen by Wendy. Students would take part too. Usually those in key stage 4 and sixth formers. The sadness faded over the years and the Charlton Evening, as it became known, was an opportunity for teachers and students alike to read aloud and recite. Science, Maths and PE teachers would perform for perhaps the first time since they had been at school and students, who by day were inner city kids with all the associated culture of ‘not reading aloud’, would entertain each other and their teachers and parents – and be part of an important celebration of literature from the UK and beyond.

I’m all for reciting poetry. For the passion, the performance and the enjoyment, however I don’t think this is what Gove means. For him reciting poetry is a memory task. How many words can the child remember? The longer the recital – the more able the child?

I despair at the relentless pursuit of data. Of testing children and putting them on a scale. If I could believe you thought reciting poems at five was about fun, laughter and celebrating their enjoyment of language – I’d be right with you Mr Gove. It isn’t though is it? It’s about you and the mark you will leave on our education system.

Did I say ‘mark’?

I meant ‘stain’.


4 Responses to From Bad to Verse

  1. You’re abosolutely right. Every good teacher knows it’s about the kids. It’s about getting them to want to learn. It’s about engaging with them. Which begs the question: What does Gove know about teaching?

  2. There is so much wrong with Gove’s diktat it’s difficult to know where to start. My feeling is that you learn by heart the poems that inspire you, You tend not to be inspired by poems you’re forced to learn. And in any case, it’s not as if schools aren’t doing it anyway. The Goveian style is to dress up what is already happening as significant and revolutionary.His stance on primary languages is typical – let enough time pass by to make it seem as if it was his idea, ignoring the last ten years’ development. We must remember he’s a mediocre ex Merde-och hack turned here-today-gone-tomorrow politician. And let’s hope that when he becomes PM he doesn’t promote Gibb!

  3. Superb Simon. Absolutely superb.

  4. You took the words from my mouth,
    Talking of stains please feel free to Paintball Gove

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