20 Years, 60 Issues

John Paine, founding editorial board member and former editor of English 4-11, looks back on 20 years of the journal

A cause for celebration.

Twenty years ago the first edition of Primary English (later to become English 4-11) carried the editorial headline ‘Teaching by Numbers?’ Then, in 1992 there was, as now, continuing discussion about the National Curriculum and standards. Indeed in the first edition the editors were convinced of the need to have a journal which would be “exclusively concerned with the teaching of English in primary schools.” Not for them the use of the term literacy but, like today, the National Curriculum records the subject title as English.

“Public debate about English has all too often been limited to pessimistic discussion about reading standards and spelling, but we (the editors) believe that there is cause for considerable optimism about the subject, and that existing practice is often imaginative, reflective, and highly motivating for children.” (Primary English Vol. 1 number 1) Although written in the Spring of 1992 the journal has always posed critical questions about the direction and content of English, whilst at the same time sharing the creativity of children in primary schools and the work of their teachers. But in the 20 years since the first edition of Primary English practitioners have accommodated increasing central intervention in the content and in the assessment of English in primary schools.

The Education Reform Act of 1988 set in train the establishment of 10 foundation subjects in the National Curriculum and the creation of attainment targets and programmes of study which would in turn provide for assessment and guidance on what should be taught in schools. For many teachers the introduction of the National Literacy Strategy in 1998 brought major changes to the structure of curriculum content and the development of teaching and learning strategies in primary schools. At a time when concern was expressed about the standards of primary children’s reading and writing, the National Literacy Project 1996, a pilot project in a small number of local authorities, indicated that improvement was possible in the levels of reading and writing skills of children at the end of the key stage 2. Subsequently the implementation of the National Literacy Strategy dramatically changed the ways in which primary English was planned, taught and assessed.

In the early editions of Primary English the editors often queried the justification or practicality of some of the aspects of English teaching being introduced into primary schools whilst highlighting concerns such as that of assessment. In the Autumn edition of 1993 the editors drew attention to the proposed changes to teacher assessment and testing wondering “how parents are going to be given information about how teacher assessments are made and an explanation for the possible differences between teacher assessments and tests.”

The content of Primary English during these years is interesting and a reminder that many of the themes of the 1990’s remain on the agenda in 2012. For example in the Autumn edition of 1993 Gervase Phinn is the author of At the Heart: Poetry in the Primary School, whilst Esther Thomas contributes an article entitled Speaking and Learning: How Nursery Children’s Talk affects their Learning. The editors drew upon classroom practice which highlighted not simply creative English, but creative approaches to teaching key skills, such as spelling, handwriting and grammar. In the Summer edition of 1994 John Williams is the author of the article Language Detectives: Teaching Grammar at KS1 and KS2. The autumn 1995 edition of Primary English included a visual resource sheet on background material to the life of Charles Dickens, as well as two articles: What the Dickens? (George Panther and Lorna Pout) and Step Forward Oliver Twist ( Patrick Wood).

Encouraging writers to contribute to the professional development of practitioners, the editors invited Sandy Brownjohn to outline writing courses for teachers in the spring edition of 1996. It is significant that in the same edition Rod Martin ( from Australia) described how children could learn from modelling professional writers in his article Editing for Young Writers. In the years running up to the National Literacy Strategy many practitioners were familiar with the work of Rod Martin who introduced the ‘big book’ to explore and exploit the strategies used by writers. His contribution brought alive not simply the ways in which texts are created, but the powerful insights which children could use to organise and structure their own writing in different genres.

In 1995 the editors and the English Association decided to hold an annual competition for the best picture books for primary age children. This tradition survives in the English 4-11 Best Children’s Illustrated Book Awards. The inclusion of an competition insert in the summer edition of the journal enabled practitioners to read the reviews of both shortlisted and winning entries. The inclusion of an insert into the summer edition of English 4-11 remains a popular feature for many readers.

There have been a number of changes during the life of the journal. Probably the most significant was the change of title in 1997. To reflect a growing awareness of the need to include articles for teachers and others working with the younger years, the title was changed from Primary English to English 4-11. Style and layout of the journal have also changed, and in 2007 there was a decision to publish English 4-11 in full colour. This dramatically improved the appeal of the journal and in particular brought examples of children’s work to life when illustrated in articles.

In the 1990s Primary English organised a number of conferences as far afield as Southampton and Sheffield. With the advent of the Literacy Strategy they were discontinued. There have also been editorial changes – changes of membership in the editorial board. But throughout the years the editors have tried to ensure that writers with a high level of professional expertise have been invited to write for the journal. So there were, for example, regular writers on the Early Years and on the use of IT in English.

Looking back over past editions is a reminder not simply of the range of content, but of the ongoing need to address further intervention in the curriculum and its assessment. It is also a stark reminder that tinkering with the curriculum goes on. In the Autumn 1993 edition, the editorial notes that “any revision to the English curriculum will not be introduced ‘before the 1995/6 school year.’ With a further revision planned by the current Coalition Government in 2012, how many revisions have there been, and how have such changes identified the life expectancies of primary children in the 21st century?

The English Association has done much to support the publication of a journal for primary practitioners. In a room in the Institute of Education in the University of London, just over twenty years ago, the seeds were sown for Primary English. Much is owed to the vision of those within the Association who planned such an initiative.

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