The publication of The Grammar Papers by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is bound to restart old battles, especially as the decision to abandon the formal teaching of grammar in the Sixties was apparently highly suspect ("Un-tested thesis 'halted grammar tuition in Sixties' ", TES May 8).
The papers themselves look at different kinds of grammar, consider how expert today's teachers are, and run the rule over the latest research. They are timely and highly informative. So, where do they lead us?
Ask 10 English teachers what English is all about and you'll get 10 different answers; but if you settle for reading, writing, speaking and listening well, then you come up against the fact (awkward or agreeable, according to your point of view) that all of these can be achieved in the classroom without any input of formal grammar at all. In other words, if language in use is your only concern, formal grammar becomes superfluous, and "grammar" is reduced to phrasing, spelling and punctuation - what used to be called "surface features".
If, on the other hand, you want additionally to foster an informed curiosity about the language itself and good analytical habits in your pupils, then you have an automatic case for teaching descriptive grammar systematically. But beware: there are snags. To begin with, there is nothing more foolish than starting a grammar course without knowing what its complete form should look like and how much time it will take. In the Fifties, the list of what constituted grammar was long enough to require five years to get through and routinely involved as many successive volumes of the same textbook.
Concepts of what grammar is have changed since then, and in particular the Latin-based prescriptive grammar of the past has been replaced by today's high-yield descriptive grammars. But five years is still about right, and the need for fully sequenced instruction remains.
That means, of course, that the planning of formal grammar in the secondary phase must be in terms of a year-on-year run from 11 to 16, with key stage 3 viewed as a staging post, not a terminus.
It also means that grammar must be explicitly incorporated and accredited in GCSE English, otherwise no one will bother once key stage 3 is over, despite the requirements of the current English Order. The present fiasco of fiddling around with formal grammar in key stage 3 pilot tests without simultaneously ensuring a valid GCSE follow-up is simply yet more proof that there is more money than sense in education.
Just as not all children will benefit from being taught formal grammar, so others will be deprived if they are not taught it, and the logic of that is an 11 to 16 elective grammar track, complete with dedicated examinations, available to all schools but not required of them. When that exists, grammar will be seen not as an imposition but as an option with status, and English teachers will once more be compelled to see grammar as part of their basic professional competence.
You may ask why an elective grammar track is not in place already. The answer, of course, is that the national curriculum and diversified planning go together like Dracula and garlic; and a fully-fledged grammar programme implies catering to a minority in a way that suits it. But The Grammar Papers, while still a prisoner of language in use, at least makes grammar respectable. A little more enlightenment, and English could become a discipline again.
'The Grammar Papers - Perspectives on the Teaching of Grammar in the National Curriculum' (QCA/98/052) can be ordered from QCA Publications, tel: 0181 867 3333Colin Butler is senior English master at Borden Grammar School, Sittingbourne, Kent