Oliver Cross: Why school kids would do better if we subtracted Michael Gove



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I REALLY WISH I could have learned to draw, not only for the pleasure it would have given me but also because it would have made my voluntary work at the City of Leeds secondary school a little less challenging for everybody, especially the pupils.

My task there is to listen to books read by children recently arrived in Britain and needing to master English, and to help them where necessary – which is generally a lot less often than it would be if the situation were reversed and I were to be suddenly exported to, say, eastern Europe or northern Africa and told to make myself understood.

I’m ashamed that, in the modern Babel- world, I remain stubbornly monolingual. I was supposed to learn French but failed heroically. My French teacher wrote in one end-of-term report that I was incapable of progressing any further in the subject – I was then aged about 12 – and that, although this was only my interpretation, I could burn in hell for all he cared.

The games teacher, the physics teacher, the art teacher, the woodwork teacher (who said I could sweep up the sawdust but must on no account touch any sharp tools) and the maths teacher all reached similar conclusions and for some time I thought that my only scholastic talent was defeating teachers’ expectations.

This changed when I was reclassified from ‘moron’ to ‘possible late developer’ but still I found foreign languages beyond me – and to see some of the City of Leeds children I read with skipping through the language barrier like a ballerina on steroids (and I know ballerinas don’t generally take steroids; I’m just trying to liven things up), makes me think, contrary to the grouchy opinions of many adults, that young people are getting cleverer.

Ah, I hear the grouches saying, the kids may be able to play about with computers, but do they know their 12-times table? - ignoring the truth that if you can work a computer, you don’t need to know your 12-times table, which, in any case, hasn’t been the most relevant of tables since pre-decimal currency was abolished decades before any British schoolchildren were born.

Still, Michel Gove, the fanatical and, I’m beginning to think, rather crazed education secretary wants all children under his control to learn their 12-times table and a prescribed range of poetry by rote, as if all the electronic and intellectual advances of the last 30 years hadn’t happened.

In contrast, the children at City of Leeds school, even if, as is mostly the case, they have English as their second language, know how to work the internet and all things electronic.

And when they come to a word they don’t understand, they translate it via Google and there’s always a terminal at hand for them to do it on, although I suspect Mr Gove would rather they worked with blackboards and slates.

However, fluent reading means going with the flow and stopping too often to get a definitive Google translation would slow things down too much.

So when a difficult word crops up, I often try mime it, although I’m a terrible actor, or to draw it, and, flipping through an old reading-session notebook, I came across what appeared to be an overturned wheelbarrow – an indecipherable shape topped by two circles which I took to be wheels.

Then I remembered that they weren’t wheels, they were bulging eyes and this had been my attempt to draw a frog.

I’m haunted by the thought that there might be a child in Leeds telling the story of the wheelbarrow which, by means of a kiss, was transformed into a princess.