Testing grammar

Female pupil writing

There has been much comment, discussion and even fury in the media about the new grammar, punctuation and spelling (GPS) tests for primary school pupils. Parents, teachers, academics and other commentators claim that the tests are inappropriate for primary pupils and that these high-stakes assessments have a deleterious effect on teaching and learning.

Part of the problem lies in terminology. Children have to spot examples of grammatical constructions such as “fronted adverbials”. This term has become notorious as it has not previously been used in grammatical descriptions and seems sometimes to apply to phrases that are essentially “adjectival”. The deeper problem is that the label becomes more important than the underlying reality. It is obviously good to teach children the structures of language, particularly if such knowledge helps to express themselves more accurately. But testing a knowledge of labels is very different from testing an understanding of language structures.

Such understanding requires a connection between children’s everyday understanding of language and the grammar they have to grasp. Linguists such as Halliday have developed a functional approach to language that gives meaning to everyday interactions. However, GPS relies on ‘ideal’ forms of language that contradict everyday experience. The Oxford or ‘serial’ comma is outlawed when it is in fact common and correct usage. GPS requires that ‘exclamations’ must begin with ‘How’ or ‘What’ and include a finite verb – which is not the case in real language use. Terms like ‘command’ or ‘exclamation’, which have a social function, refer in GPS only to specific grammatical structures.

This context-free view of grammar implies that children’s language is either right or wrong. Lord Bew’s review (2011) of Key Stage 2 testing, assessment and accountability seized (p.60) upon spelling, grammar, punctuation, vocabulary” as elements of writing where there are clear ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers, which lend themselves to externally-marked testing”. GPS performance thus becomes a key indicator of a school’s success or failure – even though the view of language enshrined in the tests is so limited.

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November moon

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The moon comes up trumps

on fourteenth November, determined to outshine

the golden hair of political aspirants.   Man, dress’d in brief authority,

performs fantastic tricks; will May set sail from Europe

on fearful course of political expediency?

Urbane discourse becomes the trolls of social media,

Faraging in their own back yard. And yet the moon

controls the ebb and flow of human fate,

And when the new world order’s long since gone

she will arise to light the ember’d earth.

The medium and the (overheard) message

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I’m sitting in a waiting room on a modern British railway station on a November evening.   The station has been assembled from pre-fabricated units, and the waiting room is a large metal shell with perfect acoustics for articulating the voices of the occupants.  About twenty people, in coats and scarves, are waiting for their train, most peering silently at their digital devices.  In a corner there is a young woman of about 20 wearing blue headphones connected to her large screen phone, which she twists in her hands as she speaks.   She can hear the voice of her friend, but we can only hear her side of the conversation.  We hear it perfectly. She is talking to her friend in a slightly plangent, self-justifying manner, in a mild Welsh accent.  She uses the syntactic filler ‘like’ frequently.    She seems unaware that her private conversation has become a public event, overheard by everyone else in the room despite our hunched performance of private preoccupation.

“Well she’s complaining, like, she’s complaining that people keep letting her down, like, but that’s because we’ve got work to do and she hasn’t, you see … she wants to go out every night and we can’t do it …. she must be doing the easiest course in the world, like one lecture a week and writing one essay between three people … the easiest course ever …”

As an occasional lecturer at the local university, I wonder what course she is describing with its exaggerated lack of requirements.  It sounds like a drama module where some of the assessment will be by performance rather than by written examination.  However that may be, the conversation moves from university life to going home for Christmas:

“I’ve got all this to do, like I’ve got to walk the dog and buy presents … and I’ve got to go to the gym because I’m putting on so much weight.   I saw my grandmother, she said ‘You’re looking fuller!’  That’s the way my grandmother speaks, she doesn’t want to say I’m putting on weight, like, but I don’t want to be called ‘fuller’ …”

At this, the young man opposite me in the waiting room begins to squirm with suppressed laughter.  I catch his eye and we both convulse silently.  Others in the waiting room shift imperceptibly.  The young woman carries on with her apparent monologue about family life in the approach to Christmas.  It’s not Dylan Thomas, but the artless articulation of a private conversation to a captive audience of railway travellers has a certain fascination.

So far as I know, Marshall McLuhan didn’t predict this specific effect of new communications media – but this unwitting publication of the private is certainly a product of mobile phone technology.

Dangerous times

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The will of the people is currently invoked in both the UK and the US.  But  only 17 million people (32% of the population) actively voted for Brexit.   Trump’s following is a minority of the US population, and heavily skewed on racial, class and gender lines.

As history shows, “the will of the people” comes easily to the lips of those with an anti-democratic agenda.   As Adorno and colleagues in the Frankfurt School argued after the rise of Nazism, the simple remedies of Fascism have a particular appeal to those who lack power.  Michael Rosen conveys ironically the apparently benign aspect of fascism:

Fascism arrives as your friend.
It will restore your honour,
make you feel proud,
protect your house,
give you a job,
clean up the neighbourhood,
remind you of how great you once were,
clear out the venal and the corrupt,
remove anything you feel is unlike you…

But fascism taps into eternal tribalism and hatred.   As Adam Gopnik says, the rise of Donald Trump is not merely a “people’s war” or a movement of the dispossessed.   Trump has no sympathy for the dispossessed.  In his presidential candidacy announcement, Trump announced: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”   As Henry Giroux argues, Trump’s endless racist, hate-filled and misogynistic remarks are viewed by the mainstream media as indiscrete and colourful rather than as symptomatic of the tribal resentment and hostility on which he relies in his bid for power.

Max Joseph writes:

Trump’s hate-filled rhetoric, blatant chauvinism, mean bullying, and open admiration of authoritarian rulers are more than just hints of what’s to come if he is elected … I have become obsessed with opposing Trump because, throughout my short-ish life, I’ve asked myself why no one stopped Hitler on his way up.

Fascism, as Michael Rosen concludes, doesn’t walk in saying:
“Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution.”
 The sovereignty of a democratic parliament and the rule of law are bulwarks against an unthinkable future.
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Thursday Fox

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A putrescent smell

led my daughter into the garden

where her four year old plays.

 

A dead fox:

couched and crouching,

head on a tussock of grass

as if looking ahead.

 

No visible injury;

poisoned perhaps?

The jaw was eaten

and maggots festooned the tail.

 

Hackney council will take and dispose in an hour.

 

But she dug a garden grave

laid the fox as a foetus

beneath a blanket of earth

with stones above

 

to prevent further violation.

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That the number of our Members be unlimited

NPG D8548; Thomas Hardy after Unknown artist

“That the number of our Members be unlimited.”  This was the first rule of the London Corresponding Society, formed in January 1792 to debate the necessity of parliamentary reform. The main test of membership was agreement that “the welfare of these kingdoms requires that every adult person, in possession of his reason, and not incapacitated by crimes, should have a vote for a Member of Parliament”.  Within six months, the Society claimed more than 2000 members. In 1794, Thomas Hardy, a shoemaker, the founder of the Society, was arrested with 11 other members; he was committed to the Tower and later to Newgate.  When he was acquitted on a charge of high treason, the London crowd went wild with delight and dragged him in triumph through the streets.  But by the end of the decade the London Corresponding Society had been outlawed. Tom Paine’s Rights of Man was banned; meetings were prohibited; and Hardy was running a shoe shop near Covent Garden.

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E.P.Thompson, from whom I take the above account, suggests that the London Corresponding Society should be thought of as “popular radical” organisation rather than as “working-class”.  At one end, it reached out to the coffee houses, taverns and dissenting churches of Piccadilly, Fleet Street and the Strand; at the other, it touched the older working-class communities of Wapping, Spitalfields and Southwark. Its first organiser lived in Piccadilly, but its secretary was a working man, there was a low weekly subscription, and meetings were both a social occasion and a centre of political activity.  Most importantly, there was the democratic determination embodied in the leading rule: “That the number of our members be unlimited.”

Thompson comments that to throw open the doors to propaganda and agitation in this “unlimited” way implied a new notion of democracy, which cast aside ancient inhibitions and trusted to self-activating and self-organising processes among the common people.  The comparison with the currently burgeoning Labour Party membership is striking.   It may be, as Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, has recently claimed, that a number of revolutionary socialists have found a home in Momentum, the group that supports a popular movement to sustain Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party.  But the sheer number of members makes clear that this is a genuinely radical movement. The meetings of Momentum that I have attended in Bristol have been social as well as political, and characterised by a collaborative enthusiasm for genuine change. The efforts of the National Executive Council of the Parliamentary Labour Party to disenfranchise 130,000 recently joined members will only fuel this afflatus.

The hopes and aims of this popular movement, at the beginning of the 21st century, are not quite the same as those of the London Corresponding Society and other similar societies (such as those in Sheffield, Derby and Manchester) that arose at the beginning of the 19th century.  The desire is not for parliamentary reform per se but for attention to structural social inequalities that have been exacerbated by globalisation.  Many of those who voted to leave the EU have said that they wanted to “get their country back”.  They were expressing a natural wish for ownership and control.  Unfortunately, Brexit itself will not achieve this.   Only last week the death was reported of the sixth Duke of Westminster, whose property holdings spread across the world are worth £13 billion but will not be liable to inheritance tax.

Corbyn is clearly an egalitarian who desires social justice, and the great majority of his supporters share his belief in the possibility of a better world.  Thomas Hardy and the London Corresponding Society failed in the short-term, but they initiated a radical social movement that, in a different context, is currently enjoying a renaissance.

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Truant and Fifteen – my early films of 1960s teenage life

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Truant and Fifteen are short, silent, fictional dramas that I made as a teenager when I was experimenting with filmmaking.  Truant is a four minute movie in which a young boy (played by my 10 year old brother Richard) decides to miss school for the day.  The camera pans from the imprisonment of the school yard to open fields and woods.  The boy runs towards the trees, hurling  his school satchel down the slope ahead of him.  He spends the day by a small river fishing and making an improvised catapult from his sock garter (normal boys’ wear at the time).  Early the next morning, he attempts to forge a letter to explain his absence from school, but his mother comes in to the room and finds him …

I made Truant when I was 13 or 14 and it won a minor prize in the Amateur Cine World annual film competition of 1960.  Looking back to the time, it’s possible to see parallels with the fourth act of Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959), where the motif of the abandoned satchel heralds Antoine Doinel’s (Jean-Paul Leard’s)  truancy.  And the close-up on Richard’s stricken face at the end of the film matches the final shot of Antoine Doinel’s capture.  But I don’t think I had seen Truffaut’s film at that time, so perhaps the resemblances are just something to do with the zeitgeist.

In Fifteen, made two years later, Richard is growing up and the world of boyish abandon meets teenage party culture of the early 1960s.  He is the leader of a gang of boys who race their bicycles around the suburban streets.  They find an abandoned motorcycle in a sloping field and all four ride it down to the bottom of the hill, powered only by gravity and their combined weight.  Though it lacks an engine, the motorbike hints at the possibilities of adult life.  Finding a party invitation addressed to me (his older brother), Richard goes in my place and tries to pick up a girl, but is rebuffed.  Again, the film ends with an image of isolation as he leaves the party alone.

I made two alternative endings to Fifteen.  The one I didn’t use is presaged by the scene in the film (after the motorcycle run but before the party) when Richard is given a drum kit for his birthday.  He is shown playing the drum with skill, and the later party scene contains shots of a guitar band, The Gravediggers, whose drummer is conspicuously drinking.  In this optimistic scenario, Richard’s skill saves the day when the drummer becomes incapacitated.  He is welcomed into the band and becomes the toast of the party.  Although I shot some of the scenes for this scenario, I felt it lacked plausibility and that a darker ending was closer to experience.  In the event, Richard leaves the party alone and the final scene shows him walking up an empty road.  The only possible Truffaut reference here is the use of a red filter with black-and-white film stock to give the effect of night during daylight shooting (la nuit americaine).

Fifteen is both thematically and technically a progression from Truant. The title of the film is taken from Beverly Cleary’s teenage novel, Fifteen, which I have never read, but which I believe also deals with problems of teenage identity and relationship. The film is more than twice as long asTruant and the technique is more assured.  The close-ups of straining faces during the bicycle race still convince within the diegesis, although the participants were not actually moving at the time. The original film was accompanied by a tape-recorded soundtrack, mainly music composed and played by The Gravediggers.   This was synchronised to the projector by use of a home-made strobe disc which I designed in accordance with instructions in Amateur Cine World.  The projector (a 1940s Specto 9.5 mm machine) had a variable speed control (using a rheostat).  I mounted the strobe disc on one of the sprocket spindles and used the speed control to keep the strobe markings apparently still, moving neither to the left or the right.   As the speed of the reel to reel tape recorder was relatively well governed, this produced acceptable synchronisation of picture and sound (although, of course, lip-sync was not possible).

The audiotapes have been lost, and, in any case, the magnesium oxide coating that holds the audio track would have perished over the last 50 years.  But I can still remember the music composed by Andrew Speedy of The Gravediggers, and I shall attempt to recreate it and add sound  to the digital version of the films.  In the meantime, here are the original silent movies, in digital mode.