Derek Twigg – 2005 Speech on English


Below is the text of the speech made by Derek Twigg, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, on 23 February 2005.

The world of the 21st century presents huge opportunities and enormous challenges. As the world becomes more complex, so education becomes more important for ensuring that our children are able to make the most of those opportunities and tackle those challenges. A strong education system plays a crucial role in individual fulfilment, economic prosperity and a healthy society.

The RSA was founded 250 years ago to encourage the development of a principled and prosperous society, and I would like to thank the RSA for hosting us today. It’s an organisation that wants to see teaching and learning in schools that enables individuals to make the most of life in the 21st century.

The focus today is English. So I’d like to thank the QCA for launching their “national conversation” on the future of English, and all of you for being here today. You’re here because you care passionately about the importance of English and are genuinely interested in the teaching and learning of English in our schools.

Everyone has their own particular view on the importance of English. For me, I think that a sound grasp of the language gives you the ability and confidence to fulfil your potential, realise your goals and get more enjoyment out of life. Imagine the possibilities if everyone achieved their potential for reading, writing and communicating in English, whatever their purpose for doing so and whatever the context. Imagine a world where more and more people had the ability, opportunity and desire to read widely; write extensively; and communicate well.

I’m optimistic about the future of English in the 21st century; not because there aren’t any challenges to face, but because the evidence suggests that we continue to make progress:

  • Every year more pupils are reaching the standard expected of them in English;
  • Every year more adults are learning basic literacy skills;
  • Every year more people are using English around the world. A recent study in the EU found that the most popular foreign language to learn in primary school was English.

 To justify that optimism, we have to acknowledge and address the challenges we face. We can’t be happy that one in four children starts secondary school below the level expected of them in English. We mustn’t forget the 5 million adults in this country with poor literacy skills. And we can’t just sit back in the glow of English as a global language. Our aim must be to ensure that every person in this country has the knowledge, skills and confidence in their English to:

  • One: deal with every aspect of an ever-changing world: at school, at work, at home, and beyond;
  • Two: achieve personal fulfilment, whatever that means for the individual;
  • And three: make the most of and contribute to wider society.

Government has a moral responsibility to do everything in its power to guarantee that people can achieve that. So I want to mention 4 principles that I believe are key, not just for today’s learners, but for all tomorrow’s learners as well.

First, we can never give up on our drive to develop basic language and literacy skills, the essential tools for lifelong learning. That means sharpening up the drive for high standards in English at every stage of a pupil’s school years.

  • We’ve incorporated the National Literacy Strategy into the Primary National Strategy, and since 1998, the number of eleven year olds reaching the expected level of English for their age has risen from 63% to 78%;
  • We have the Key Stage 3 Strategy that will transform into the Secondary Strategy to act as a lever for whole school improvement. Since 2001, the number of fourteen year olds reaching their expected level has risen from 65% to 71%;
  • And in 2004-05, further work is under way to look at how we can increase the number of pupils passing English and English Literature GCSE.

The clear message is that we can’t leave anyone behind and we’re extending opportunities to help those who may be falling behind.

And of course, it’s never too late to learn. We launched the Skills for Life strategy in 2001 to improve adult basic skills. I was reading a really uplifting story of a grandmother who had never read a book before. Trying to read a picture book to her grandson inspired her to join a literacy class at her local college. Two years on, she’s taking a GCSE in English and hopes to help others in a similar situation by becoming a basic skills classroom assistant.

The second principle is that we have to get away from this false tension between the basic skills and creativity. The basic tools of any language are essential, but of course any language is so much more than just the basic skills. With the basic skills in place, then creativity, arts and culture can flourish. And combined together, they reinforce each other.

It’s about giving learners all the opportunities, support and encouragement they need to spread their wings in whichever direction they wish: reading for pleasure, writing creatively, composing lyrics, acting things out, using the internet, and the list goes on and on.

We’re committed to promoting such breadth.

That’s why creative writing is a key part of the primary and secondary English curriculum.

That’s why we’re encouraging writers who work with children.

That’s why we’re working with organisations such as the National Literacy Trust and the Campaign for Reading.

And that’s why we’re supporting librarians, who are often the key link between children and literature. I was delighted last year when we opened a refurbished and enlarged library in my constituency.

The third principle is that appropriate assessment has a crucial role to play and will continue to do so. Parents and teachers need to be confident that each child is making progress; and that this progress is well-understood and reliably measured. Recognising progress and building on it lies at the heart of teaching.

Parents look to both teacher and test assessments because they want a fair, round and honest view of how their children are progressing, measured against their own standards and against those of other pupils of the same age.

Assessment for Learning, a key part of Personalised Learning, helps progress by highlighting the strengths that would benefit from further stretch and the weaknesses that need further support. Knowing where pupils are and where they can get to helps teachers to plan an effective curriculum and to determine the best way forward for each individual pupil.

External assessments have played a vital role in driving up standards. The results help us to identify and act on the strengths and weaknesses in the system. And they give learners qualifications and credentials that are widely recognised and respected, and in greater demand in today’s society.

In a society that’s rich with information, we shouldn’t be surprised that parents also look to performance tables, because they take an interest and want to make the best choice for their child.

More information empowers parents. And of course it’s not just about the raw results. Value added tables show which schools are making the most difference to their pupils’ performance. The new school profile will tell parents what they want to know about the school’s approach to creativity, arts, and culture, all of which are essential parts of a good school. If every school becomes a good school, then parents would have even better choice.

The fourth principle is that there’s a valuable two-way relationship between modern technology and English. ICT can be a powerful tool not just for raising standards in English, but equally for widening opportunities to explore all the possibilities of English. At the same time, better skills in English will mean that people are more comfortable with modern technology.

The Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. In the 21st century we don’t want to limit anyone.

There are materials to help teachers use ICT in literacy in all the primary years, and other materials to promote the use of ICT across all subjects at Key Stage 3.

Earlier this week, I was in a primary literacy class in a school in East London, where a teacher was using an interactive whiteboard to lead a lesson on the topical issue of snow. At one point, pupils had just two minutes to articulate their thoughts on the dangers of snow. They were clearly engaged and worked impressively.

ICT can be used in English to help pupils to draft, review and finalise their work; to work in alternative and challenging ways; and to benefit from collaborative work or individual sessions on areas in need of further stretch and support.

Pupils can learn how to make the most of the powerful search engines now available, how to analyse and respond to a range of texts in a variety of media, and how to assess the validity and reliability of the information presented to them.

I can’t see any reason why the best of the old and the best of the new can’t exist side by side, and there’s a presentation next on how technology can enhance the teaching of Shakespeare.

It’s all about giving learners the provision and support to develop their language and literacy skills to their highest standard possible; and also giving them the opportunity and encouragement to explore the endless possibilities of English, however they may want to. That will empower learners to make the most of their lives and to take a bigger role in shaping them.

The government’s commitment to getting the conditions right for English to flourish is just the starting point. We’re here today because the debate is just beginning. English 21 gives professionals and experts from a range of fields the chance to contribute to the debate. Your input is valued and vital for determining how we proceed in the 21st century. It’s not just central government setting out the way forward. We can set the best agenda by working together.

I want to start drawing to a close by disagreeing with something George Bernard Shaw said in Pygmalion. We do respect our language. And all of us here want to teach our children to speak it, to write it, and to use it well.

So the challenge for all of us now is to inspire in disengaged young people the desire to learn and to pick up a book and read it for pure enjoyment.

My constituency is one of the most disadvantaged in the country. I’ve met too many people there who have said to me that they feel inferior because they can’t read and write, and that this has blighted their whole lives. In the 21st century, we don’t want anyone saying that in any constituency. Thank You.