It’s the only poetry I can remember:
In the Ning Nang Nong,
Where the cows go bong,
And the… And the? I give up.
Twelve words from a Spike Milligan nonsense rhyme I used to read when I was about six. That’s all the poetry I can recite. And I can assure you that my life and my education are no weaker for it.
Sorry kids, but Michael Gove, the “decentralising” dictator of Britain’s school system, has had another brainwave, and the result is that you’re going to have to start memorising poetry from the age of five.
Having waffled some stuff about “setting schools free” in his first few months as Education Secretary (a cover to create a privatised market in education), Gove has been bent on dictating to schools what they must teach and when ever since.
And unfortunately, that tends to amount to a pastiche of an imagined 1950s education – when, as the Daily Mail will tell you, Everything was Better.
Gove himself wasn’t born until 1967, so precisely what he knows about 1950s schooling is a mystery, but he won’t let that stop him.
So now, after Bibles in schools, teaching Latin, and forcing children to learn all the kings and queens of England, five-year-olds will now have to memorise poetry by heart. Presumably they’ll be tested on questions like, how will any of this help you in your later life?
Latin is a great example of this kind of policymaking by editorial. Open up a right-wing newspaper on any given day, and you’ve a good chance of finding a comment piece by some jumped up “intellectual” holding up Latin as the litmus test of whether British education is (a) a rigorous gold standard the world looks up to, or (b) Grange Hill.
Well I’ve got news for them.
I studied Latin. My secondary school made it compulsory in Year 7 and optional after that. Most of us took the first opportunity to ditch it for modern languages like Spanish or German. Not me. I took it to Year 9, and when selecting my GCSE subjects, it was the first on the list. Why?
Because here’s what they never tell you – Latin is a piece of piss.
Seriously. For all that the Toby Youngs and BoJos of this world want to convince you that it’s Oxbridge at age eight, Latin is a walk in the park. None of those impenetrably long German words, or that annoying French rolling of the ‘r’. Just add ‘us’ to the end of any English word, and there you have it – Latin.
It was the ultimate doss subject. After my GCSEs I made a conscious effort to forget it all. Never needed it since.
And so to memorising poetry. What precisely is this for?
a) because it sounds ‘rigorous’ and ‘traditional’
b) to make it seem like the government is doing something
c) because a think tank junkie told Gove it’s a good idea
d) a combination of all the above
e) because children’s education will benefit from it
Well done if you said (d). Have a gold star. Detention for anyone who said (e).
Poetry, like Latin and kings and queens, harks back to bizarre fantasies over what education should be – rigorous, traditional, tedious, and useless. My GCSE English teacher – perhaps the best teacher I had – was quite open with us that in her day they’d had to memorise poetry and lists of monarchs, and that it had been a total waste of time. None of us doubted it.
There was an excellent piece by Tom Chivers on the Telegraph site yesterday. Chivers is not a political commentator, and therefore is not paid to churn out crap. Instead, he argued in response to Gove’s latest announcement that education policy should be based on considered evidence, not on fads, theories and headlines.
I couldn’t agree more. At some point I’ll write in more detail on the nonsense of British education policy, but the sum of it is that successive governments are obsessed with their own pet fads, and dictate the education (and, therefore, futures) of millions of British children on the back if it. One government has one set of theories and implements them, then another government comes in with a set of rival theories and implements those instead. Teachers are left scrambling to keep up – and then cop all the blame when things go wrong.
Schoolchildren will generally pay attention to what is interesting, or what seems useful. If something is both tedious and demonstrably pointless – like memorising poetry – they’ll soon switch off.
Well done then, Mr Gove, on failing both tests.
Update: Turns out I don’t even remember those two and a half lines of poetry – Tom Bowker in the comments confirming that it is, in fact, ‘On the Ning Nang Nong’, not ‘In the Ning Nang Nong’ (now there’s a sentence I never expected to write). I could have Googled the poem beforehand, of course – but that wouldn’t have been me remembering it then, would it?