Barry Spurr

Spurr’s recommendations for English fundamentally flawed

If we follow the recommendations of the recently released national curriculum review for teaching English we will all soon be pretending we live in 1955. Back then employment was at its peak. There were  no unemployed.  The White Australia Policy was still operating, and in schools children were learning how to read through working through books like the Queensland Readers.

One of the two ‘subject area specialists’ appointed to provide expert advice to the reviewers is Professor Barry Spurr  who holds a personal chair in Poetry and Poetics at The University of Sydney. I want to ignore the controversy over any offensive personal views he may have and look at the specific criticisms he had of the current Literature strand of the national English Curriculum.

One of his recommendations was for a  “greater emphasis on dealing with and introducing literature from the Western literary canon, especially poetry” and this has been, unfortunately, accepted by the reviewers.

So what is this literature from the western literary canon that has been so neglected in the current curriculum? According to Professor Spurr English Literature studies must now begin in Foundation Year (with six year olds).  It should begin with Middle English lyrics, including Chaucer, and continue to the present, with acknowledgement and experience also of ancient texts from the classical world and of the Bible.

This kind of prescriptive approach to text selection is the focus of the so-called culture wars has previously been focused only on secondary schooling.

It is most disturbing to me that Professor Spurr has suggested that this ‘historical study of literature’ should begin from the Foundation year (Prep) where he says :

The flavoursome vocabulary of the simplest Medieval lyrics and the inventive conceptions of traditional fairy stories, myths and legends (often with strong ethical and psychological messages, as well, as in Aesop’s fables) as well as the nonsense verse of writers like Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear can be savoured by the youngest pupils.

From the early years of schooling, classics of Australian children’s literature must be strongly represented: Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians, The Silver Brumby series by Elyne Mitchell and Norman Lindsay’s Magic Pudding, along with texts that have a similar standing in world literature in English, like Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows and works by such as AA Milne and the brothers Grimm.

There must be sustained teaching of the different kinds of poetry (for example), beginning in the early years with lyrical verse and emphasis on oral qualities of rhythm and rhyme, and poetry as a spoken form. Memorisation and recitation, developing pupils from reading poetry as text to assisting them to concentrate on the sounds and accents of poetry.

Again just to remind you this is referring to the Prep years here – children of six years of age, who are being prepared for a future of technological innovation and a world of work that is at yet unimaginable.

Some would argue that the focus on Professor Spurr’s response as a ‘subject specialist’ shifts our attention away from the Review’s  final recommendations which I find unacceptable.

I would argue however that his response provides us with an insight into the mindsets of the reviewers Donnelly and Wiltshire, who after all, chose him to be their font of wisdom on the topic of teaching English in primary and secondary years in Australia in 2014.

In my opinion Professor Spurr seems to be lacking in some basic knowledge of schooling in those years.

Educators today understand they are preparing students for a precarious and unknown future, where the jobs of the future are still in many ways unimaginable.

In the 21st century Australia’s capacity to provide a high quality of life for all will depend on the ability to compete in the global economy on knowledge and innovation.

This quote is from the Melbourne Declaration and it assumes that a curriculum will be developed for an education system where everyone agrees that the way forward for our nation is to think of the future.

So how does an English curriculum help teachers prepare students for this exciting unknown, a future of unimagined possibilities? Many literacy and English educators, and those of us who prepare the future teachers of English and literacy, believe that an English curriculum needs to balance the traditions of the past with the texts of the present in order to help our students explain and prepare for an unknown future.

While the current English curriculum is not perfect, there are a couple of groundbreaking and innovative features that seem to have become lost in the tired fights about phonics and skills and ideological warfare. One of these is the intertwining of three strands of content. So students from Foundation Year right through to Year 10 learn how to use the English Language at the word and sentence level, while at the same time they learn how to write and read whole texts and practice their Literacy skills, and also at the same time engage with the depth and breadth of quality Literature available to them in Australia in 2014.

Yes it is complex and difficult work, and yes many teachers feel overburdened and confused  about the decisions that have to be made to make this curriculum work.

But does that mean we abandon it?

Do we have to go back in time and pretend that the reality of the 21st century and the impact of global economic and social policies are not going to affect the children of our future?

Dr Eileen Eileen Honan is Senior Lecturer in the School of Education, University of Queensland. Her particular research interests include:
– the connections between teachers’ practices and curriculum guidelines;
– the interactions between home and school literacy practices particularly in relation to digital literacies;
– the development of vernacular literacy practices in Papua New Guinea and other nations in the Pacific Island region; – the development of new rhizomatic methodologies in  educational   research.