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Dear Gavin Williamson, could you tell parents what a fronted adverbial is?

Michael Rosen
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: James Veysey/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: James Veysey/Rex/Shutterstock

How are you getting on with fronted adverbials? I only ask because my timeline on social media is suddenly full of parents telling me that they don’t know what these are and they don’t know why their children need to know them. Now their children are schooling from home, the idiosyncrasies of the primary grammar curriculum are confronting them.

Perhaps, as a parent, you are in the same shoes. I’ve noticed that education ministers do not always do well when they are asked the same questions ministers say children should be asked. You will remember, perhaps, the everlasting Nick Gibb struggling on the radio with conjunctions and prepositions meant to be understood by an 11-year-old. They defeated him. It was painful listening. But as you will surely know, thanks to your predecessors, and after the Bew report of 2011, the primary curriculum now includes all this so-called grammar, which to many of us is a package of outdated, rigid, misleading, prescriptive, disputed terms, all based on the false assumption that “grammar” is either right or wrong.

Jeremy Williams is one of many parents now seeing the full horrors of this. “Yep, it’s taken homeschool for me to become aware of this joyless obsession with the mechanics of language,” he wrote on Twitter. “I write for a living and had to ask my nine-year-old what a fronted adverbial is, so I’m not convinced it’s necessary.”

Another parent, Dr Carolyn Jess-Cook, wrote: “Anyone struggling with homeschooling should know that, despite having a PhD in literature and having published 12 books, I only learned what a fronted adverbial was when my eight-year-old’s teacher said he doesn’t use enough of them in his written work.”

Related: Parents find all-day Zoom less captivating than they expected | Laura McInerney

I heard on the grapevine that the fronted adverbial was something of an afterthought on the grammar pile, and that even the linguist who suggested it now regrets the idea. If teaching this stuff to your children is bugging you as it is bugging many other parents, you could perhaps get some relief by cornering your predecessor, Michael Gove, on Zoom and asking him why he insisted that primary schoolchildren should have to spot a subjunctive – especially as linguists are not agreed that there really is a “subjunctive” in English in the way there is in French, say.

Somewhere along the line – have you noticed? – these grammatical features turned into instructions to children on how to write. So now, I gather, they have to create sentences using fronted adverbials, relative clauses and expanded noun phrases – preferably after a preposition. It is writing by numbers.

I know this complicates things for politicians who like simple answers, but there are people in society who write. We are writers. One way of working out how to help primary schoolchildren to write may have been to get writers to explain how we do it. I have interviewed quite a few writers, and I’ve learned that we do it in many different ways. There is a plurality and flexibility. We avoid the rigid, prescriptive, formulaic approach being demanded in the primary school curriculum.

Just last week I was privileged to record a radio programme about writing with one of the great modern writers, Hilary Mantel. We talked about the sound and rhythm of sentences, the struggle to find the right word, the shaping of a paragraph so that it sets a scene before introducing a character, and much more. We talked for nearly an hour and we did not mention a fronted adverbial once.

In fact, you must reflect occasionally on the miracle that is yourself: how you have reached the career heights without perhaps even knowing what a fronted adverbial is. (Have you, by the way, paused to wonder why no one mentions rear or middle adverbials? What is so special about being fronted?) Your main route to running education seems to have been through selling fireplaces, while the doughty schools minister, Nick Gibb, came to his position through accountancy.

Accountancy maybe, but clearly not accountability. Last summer, you and Mr Gibb toured media studios telling us that the GCSE and A-levels exam algorithm was robust … until it wasn’t. More bust than robust, I think. The same goes for schools being safe, until they were unsafe, or that everyone can learn online … except for those who are not online.

I see a pattern: you both U-turn so often you spin on the spot. That must be why you never move on.

Yours, Michael Rosen