Moving in English Circles

At the start of the academic year, Roy Blatchford urges teachers and students not to take for granted their spoken and written English.


‘English, cries one group, should contain a solid grammatical preparation for the learning of Latin. English, cries another, should be the core subject. English, cry other voices, should never have been allowed into the syllabus; English is what my typists should have learned at school; English merely prepares the proletariat to understand the words of command. English, laments many a floundering novice teacher, is the most difficult subject of all to teach.

English? responds a treble voice, I speak English don’t I? My cobbers understand me. Why the heck should you have to teach me English at all?’

I.A.Gordon ‘The Teaching of English’

Over the summer I asked a wise Swiss friend what he thought of Brexit. He didn’t hesitate.

‘You have London, the pound sterling and English. You’ll never lose friends and influence.’

The capital city and coinage aside, he is so right about the primacy of our native language in a global society.

Over the past fifty years, English has spread more widely and penetrated more deeply than any other language. The British Council estimates that more than two billion people speak English, though an exact figure is hard to come by.

What is certain is that there are many more people speaking English as an additional language than as a native tongue. According to the distinguished linguist Braj Kachru this is ‘a unique phenomenon in the history of language diffusion’.

Indian-born Kachru is particularly known for his description of English’s three circles: the Inner Circle of the UK and the transplanted British communities of the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; the Outer Circle made up of largely British colonies, such as India, Malaysia and Nigeria; and the Expanding Circle, which takes in the rest of the world, including China, continental Europe and Latin America, where the ambitious see English as the key to advancement.

As people move up the ladder of prestige, and interact with English speakers everywhere, they adopt the internationally comprehensible language of today’s global business, scientific and cultural exchanges. Working in the Arab World I hear its evolving vocabulary and syntax every day. Intriguingly, it is a language that is often markedly different from British and American English.

So the proof is out there everywhere. No need for Esperanto. The Tower of Babel is tumbling. English has become the global language. And, if they did but know it, native speakers of English have a glorious inheritance.

Do the British value what is so close to home? Writing in the 1940s, I. A. Gordon – quoted above – tried to capture attitudes then towards the language, particularly the assumption that if the people speak English, why then teach it in schools?

English as a discrete subject has been firmly on the school curriculum for at least a century. In 1921, George Sampson famously observed: ‘Every teacher is a teacher of English because every teacher is a teacher in English’. In 1975, The Bullock Report championed ‘language across the curriculum’.

And, amazing to think, it is nearly twenty years ago that David Blunkett wrote to primary heads at the start of the academic year announcing the arrival of the national literacy strategy.

Full marks then to academics, politicians and teachers. We have kept reminding ourselves of the importance of English in our classrooms, and put in place strategies to ensure linguistic mastery for students.

Yet the 2017 GCSE results indicate that at least 30% of the nation’s 16 year-olds have not achieved the ‘pass’ level (grade 4) of competence in English Language which is now expected in an era of ever increasing expectations.

I have long maintained that the vast majority of our young people must leave school with the dignity of confident articulacy and fluent writing, so that they are ready to thrive in a contemporary global society. I guess that’s a grade 5 in new money and, by the age of 18, most students should surely achieve that level.

In inner, outer and expanding circles throughout the world, the people of all nations quest to have a command of English.

At the start of the new academic year, let all teachers in UK classrooms recommit themselves to being teachers of English. And let all children and young people be reminded of their not-to-be-taken-for-granted glorious inheritance: innate knowers of the English language.


Roy Blatchford CBE is Founding Director of the National Education Trust and author of ‘The Restless School’, published by John Catt. He is currently advising on education system reform in the Middle East.


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  1. As a former headteacher and current director of a translation business, I’d say you are right about the importance and primacy of English. However, three points:

    1. From my experience in recruiting teachers I’m not 100% sure we have enough teachers (including English teachers) with sufficient grasp of correct English (grammar and vocabulary) to pass it on effectively.

    2. Although many countries have enthusiastic second-language speakers of English, who are happy to practise it on native speakers (note use of verb not noun) this does not mean we should abandon study of other languages. In the brave new post-Brexit world, what language does your target customer want to hear? Think about this: my French is pretty good, but I am much more likely to respond to messages sent in my first language, English.

    3. We need to improve the competence of boys in English language. We must talk to them more when they are little, and get them to enjoy reading for pleasure so that they do better at GCSE and beyond. More details in my book when it’s out later this year…

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