From The Victorian To Gove To Greening: How Far Has The English Curriculum Really Come?

From The Victorian To Gove To Greening: How Far Has The English Curriculum Really Come?

“We must not delay! Upon the speedy provision of elementary education depends our industrial prosperity. It is of no use trying to give technical teaching to our artizans without elementary education….If we leave our workfolk any longer unskilled, notwithstanding their strong sinews and determined energy, they will become over-matched in the competition of the world. If we are to hold our position among men of our own race or among the nations of the world we must make up the smallness of our numbers by increasing the intellectual force of the individual.”

In 1870, an Education Act was passed which paved the way for the achievement by the end of the century of compulsory free state education for children between the ages of five and thirteen. The driving force behind the Act was clearly articulated above by W.E. Forster in his speech to the House in February of that year. The education of the masses came also to be seen as a possible and desirable solution to problems of social unrest and rising crime, and to carry the important function of socialization, to be achieved through the inculcation of such moral values as piety, honesty, industry and, significantly, obedience. These principles are surely held good in schools today, though promoted in a different vocabulary.

What has changed, and what remains the same? It’s hardly necessary to point to the similarity between the annual testing carried out by the Victorian inspectorate to enable children to progress through a series of narrowly defined Standards in literacy and numeracy, and today’s high-stakes SATS testing, in both cases linked to payment by results and indicative of political control. This blog post will focus on the state of literacy teaching in the newly established Board Schools of the 1870s, and what primary schools are directed to do in this field a century and a half later.

There is no doubt that the literacy curriculum at the beginning of the 1870s was essentially utilitarian and limited, as defined by the Revised Code of 1861. The Code had set up benchmarks in reading which are depressingly reductionist in nature.

  • Standard 2: Read a short paragraph from an elementary reading book.
  • Standard 4: Read a few lines of poetry or prose (chosen by the Inspector)
  • Standard 5: Read a short paragraph in a newspaper or other modern narrative.
  • Standard 6: Read with fluency and expression.

However, as the decade progressed, the Inspectorate began to complain about the mechanical nature of children’s reading (the legacy of payment by results), and so the Standards were modified to include the phrase ‘read with intelligence’. What I found surprising is that, in a popular series of reading textbooks called the’ Royal Readers’, written for a highly specific audience, mention is made of reading for pleasure:

The lessons are designed so to interest young people as to induce them to read, not as task-work merely, but for the pleasure of the thing. The pieces are calculated to allure the children to read, and to make them delight in the power of reading.

The use of the word ‘allure’ is significant here, and demonstrates a degree of awareness absent from the updated National Curriculum of 2014, which refers (for the first time in its history) to reading for pleasure, but states that it should be taught. How do you teach children to enjoy reading? Creating the conditions for children to realise the ‘allure’ and ‘delight’ of reading is far more to the point. And that is best achieved through the kind of reciprocal relationships which can be established between pupils as readers and teachers as readers themselves, described in ‘Building Communities of Engaged Readers’ (Cremin et al, 2014).

You can read our article on creating a Reading for Pleasure pedagogy here. Incidentally, the requirement in the National Curriculum that children should read ‘fluently and with confidence’ by the end of KS2 ‘in preparation for reading in secondary school subjects’  is very close linguistically to the reductionist Standard 6 quoted above. One might also draw attention to the fact that the Reading Programme of Study for 2014 identifies only two ‘dimensions’ of reading –  comprehension and word-reading.

It is worth mentioning here an article in the Guardian by Michael Rosen, in which he expresses concern that reading “has come to mean something narrow and functional, no more than evidence that a child can read”.  He points to the SATS as “producing a way of reading that is dominated by the ‘facts’ of a piece of writing and knowing the ‘right ’order of events in a story”. Some classroom materials which purport to ‘teach’ and ‘test’ reading comprehension surely contribute to this effect. They use as their tools short extracts or excerpts, albeit from well-known stories, which may well not give encouragement to the reading of whole books. The reading anthologies of the 1870s used widely in Board schools are comprised precisely of such extracts, and are sometimes similarly followed by questions to ascertain the extent of comprehension.   

The Standards for writing in 1870 are equally pared-down and are directed towards what might be strictly useful to the young working-class male, such as, perhaps, composing a letter of application for employment:

  • Standard 1: Copy in manuscript character a line of print; write a few dictated words.
  • Standard 2 : A sentence from an elementary reading book, slowly read once and then dictated in single words.
  • Standard 5: A short paragraph from a newspaper…slowly dictated once, a few words at a time.
  • Standard 6: A short theme or letter, or an easy paraphrase.

The criteria for assessment included correct spelling and punctuation, exemplary handwriting and a demonstration of some knowledge of grammatical terms. My own grandmother, a later beneficiary of the 1870 Act, recalled ‘parsing ‘ in her lessons – the ‘taking apart’ of a sentence and the naming of the constituent parts. The emphasis of the literacy lessons was on transcription, grammatical terminology and a simplistic description of grammatical functions. Despite there being no research to support the view that this kind of formal, terminology-driven teaching of grammar has a positive impact on the quality of children’s writing, and with some research claiming it has a negative impact (Graham & Perin, 2007), the English curriculum of today demonstrates a marked similarity to nineteenth century thinking. In connection with the focus on transcription in the modern curriculum, in 1967 John Dixon made the point, so resonant of today’s practice, that ‘a sense of the social system of writing has so inhibited and overawed many teachers that they have never given a pupil the feeling that what he writes is his own’. Original composition did not feature at all in the Board School conception of writing. It doesn’t feature in today’s  National Curriculum either. Generating an original idea gets no mention at all. In the Programmes of Study for Key Stage 2, transcription takes precedence over composition, and the teacher’s main job is to “consolidate writing skills, vocabulary, grasp of sentence structure and knowledge of linguistic terminology” and to insist on joined cursive handwriting.

Within the context of Empire in the late 19th century, roles needed to be defined for all levels of society. Cecil Reddie, headmaster of Abbotsholme (public) School, linked them to the objectives of  a class-based three-level education system. There should be, he asserted,

  1. The school for the Briton who will be one of the muscle-workers…
  2. The school for the Briton whose work requires knowledge of the modern world…
  3. The school for the Briton who… is to be a leader…’.

We can discern strong elements of this structure alive today, in both our cultural and political life. The authoritarian class-based stance typical of the Victorian educators is still very much in evidence in our own time, as the observations in the next paragraph will show.

In the area of school literacy in 1870, the prevailing belief was that working-class children were not able to comprehend ‘literature’, hence the absence from school textbooks of the work of established writers of fiction. Dickens, one of the most popular writers of the time, is not included in the’ Royal Readers’, even in extract form. Perhaps he was considered subversive by the editors of the series because of his championing of the poor? Thus, these school-children were effectively denied a place at the literature table. In our blog ‘They won’t have anything to write about’, which we recommend you to read here, we reveal similar assumptions about class in our own day and age. We believe that those children deemed to be at a social and cultural disadvantage are more likely than others to be deprived of the chance to choose their own writing topics and have them validated as legitimate subjects for writing in school. By denying the validity of the cultural reference points of these twenty-first century children and assigning to them teacher-chosen subjects for writing, we as teachers effectively withhold from them, now and in the future, the possibility of having the agency and empowerment to express their own concerns, passions and preoccupations, and of making changes for themselves and others through the writing of their own texts. We as teachers are also under-valuing the importance of children’s own lives and experiences. This is morally and socially dangerous. Current pedagogy is producing writers as consumers (or at best imitators) of other people’s ideas, when we as teachers should really be producing a generation of writers of original content who come to realise early on that they have a  writing voice and a script of their own and how to use it. That we are not doing this is part of an ideology of the teacher as the controller and regulator of production. It is the main indicator that we have not, in one hundred and fifty years, come anything like as far in our thinking about the function of writing and reading in school (and after) as we would like to believe.


  • Cremin,T., Mottram, M., Collins, F.M., Powell, S., Safford, K., (2014) Building Communities of Engaged Readers, London: Routledge.
  • Dixon, J.(1969) Growth through English, NATE,Oxford.
  • Ferguson, F. (2005) Learning to Know their Place, M.A. dissertation, Children’s Literature in Education, Sept. 2006, Vol.37, No.3.
  • Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007) Writing Next: Effective Strategies To Improve Writing Of Adolescents In Middle School & High Schools Alliance For Excellent Education
  • Loane, G., (2010, revised 2017) Developing Young Writers in the Classroom, Routledge.
  • Rosen, M., (2008)  Death of the Bookworm,, 16th September 2008.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s