The versatile writer

The secure versatile writer has mastered the key aspects of the craft of writing. He or she has confidence in using writing skills and can respond clearly and coherently across the full range of forms that have been encountered, taking account of purpose and audience. He or she performs well in a range of contexts … but recognises that there is much to learn so that … through wider experience of reading and writing, and increasing care and accuracy, their writing will continue to improve.

Who is this a description of? (Correction: as all 11 year olds will know once they’ve studied for the new Grammar Test in 2013, that sentence should read “Of whom is this a description?”) Martin Amis? Ian McEwan? Alan Hollinghurst? Hilary Mantel? Actually, none of these. Rather it describes the “Versatile writer”, one who is “likely to be assessed as … GCSE grade C” according to the English progression map guide: Writing published by the Department for Education in 2009.

Most writers would be proud to be called “versatile”, and even more pleased to know that they had “mastered the key aspects of the craft of writing”. But if this truly describes and represents a grade C at GCSE, generally the minimum grade acceptable for employment or higher education, why do we hear the continual complaint that standards of writing are dropping?

The problem, of course, is that the initial description lacks a context. In the realm of education, teachers will recognise the language of the level or grade descriptor and will set their expectations of the kind of writing they might see at this grade accordingly. This is not a description that would stand up to scrutiny in the real world outside school.

But the professional or indeed the hobbyist writer may be interested to know what the D of E’s targets are for students who have already reached these exalted heights at an early age and want to progress even further. In fact, becoming an even better writer is fairly simple. Apparently, all you need to do is:

choose words wisely and ambitiously;

and

construct and shape my writing so that the reader responds as I intend.

There: that’s not too hard, is it?

Naming of parts

I’ve seen a sample of the new “grammar test”. It’s horrible. I suppose it will depend on how high stakes the test is in terms of the overall assessment of writing at age 11, but if it has any sort of significant weighting then the Year 6 curiculum is going to go back to the glory days of drills, skills and naming of parts.

Here’s the first question. It gives a very good flavour of the whole test.

Circle all the adverbs in the sentence below:

Open the drawers carefully and quietly when using the filing cabinet.

Much of the rest is in the same vein – at least the grammar questions are. (There are also questions on punctuation.) The actual format of the question may alter slightly, requiring pupils to connect correct pairs with lines or tick the box containing the right word, but essentially we’re in the world of decontextualised feature spotting.

The age old question returns: does being able to spot an adverb make you a better writer? If we think about what a fluent writer does, the answer is self-evidently no. In writing this piece I do not think, “I need an adverb here” nor “Most of my sentences so far have been simple or compound. For the sake of variety I need to put in a complex sentence or two.” The other side of the argument is however equally powerful. We are not talking about fluent writers, we’re referring to learners. If we want to have some sort of common language to discuss improving writing with a learner, such a language already exists – the language of English grammar – so why make it hard on ourselves by inventing circuitous descriptors when the technical terms will do just as well, or better? As far as children are concerned, a technical term like subordinate clause is no worse than any other term, it’s just something else to be learned, alongside a whole raft of other terms in other subjects (percentages anyone?) that are there because they’re there and need to be learned because that’s what you do at school.

The teacher’s craft, of course, lies in the way such learning is applied. I can see that in some classrooms there’ll be daily grammar exercises that never lead anywhere. They’ll be called “warm ups” or “jumpstarts” and will happily name the parts of speech for no other reason than to name them. It’s quite possible that children taught this way will score highly in the grammar and punctuation tests. The better teachers will of course provide rich and immersive experiences that lead to extended writing that really matters to children and for which they’ve been well prepared. Part of the immersive experience may well be exploring the effect of adverbials or expanded noun phrases on the reader, but that’s the key: good writers, aged 7 or 70, know that what matters is the effect. If we have the wherewithal to discuss whether the judicious use of an adverb just here will have real effect, all well and good.

Which brings us back to the weighting of the new test. Surely composition and effect should always be worth more than feature spotting? Let’s weight and see.

English GCSE: a spot of bother

There’s been a bit of kerfuffle about the AQA English GCSE papers this year. Specifically, a writing question on the English Language paper required the writing of a radio script and the instructions didn’t make it at all clear whether this was supposed to be some sort of monologue or a chat between two people. Given that this was on the Foundation paper, and, without resorting to stereotype, that it’s fair to say the students sitting it will be more familiar with Radio 1 than Radio 4, they’re very unlikely to be au fait with the sort of script that was perhaps being asked for. Besides which, this particular written genre has never featured in sample papers, past papers on this specification, nor even on the legacy specification.

Teachers will not have prepared their students to face this sort of writing. In one sense, that perhaps makes it fair, since everyone will be in the same boat (i.e. untaught), but there are stories circulating of large numbers of students writing nothing.

In English Literature, something worse may have happened. There’s a strong suspicion that the Foundation and Higher questions on the Poetry Anthology section somehow got switched over before the papers went to print. Whilst the same skills are tested in both papers, the Foundation questions are generally a little wider in scope, tend to focus on the easier poems in the set selection and often feature bullet pointed suggestions of what to write about to support students in framing a relevant answer. In both questions on the Relationshipssection, the wider question appeared on the Higher paper and the narrower one on Foundation, viz:

Foundation: …present a close relationship

Higher: …present relationships

and

Foundation: …feelings for a woman

Higher: …feelings about another person

Coupled with that, the named poems in the Foundation questions were more demanding in terms of their complexity and length, whilst those named in the Higher questions were shorter, contemporary and perceived by teachers as much more straightforward.

And to make matters even worse, the Unseen poem on the Foundation paper was on the theme of “being thick”. This has widely been seen as adding insult to injury.

Conspiracy theorists will be quick to jump in here. AQA enjoys the lion’s share of the English GCSE market, so results with this board will significantly affect the overall percentage pass this year. It’s an open secret that the more right wing elements in the coalition are fed up with results in GCSE going up and up year after year, and have demanded a sterner test of the nation’s youth. Hence the abandonment, from next year, of modular examinations. As far as the Department for Education is concerned, it’s terminal examinations, or nothing. Which probably means that it will indeed be terminal for raising achievement.

As yet there’s been no response from AQA. They probably needn’t worry: there’s nothing in the rules that says they have to make the Foundation questions more accessible, nor a rule that says they can’t set any form of writing they want to in the Writing section of English Language. And they’ll almost certainly have the support of St Michael, so they’re laughing all the way to results day in August.

An improving market?

The market is efficient. The market will decide. It isn’t surprising, I suppose, that the current government is a great fan of market forces. The mantra seems to be – in more or less any sphere – leave it to the market.

We can argue that the financial markets spectacularly failed in 2008, and that we’ve been living with the consequences ever since, but that doesn’t seem to count against them. Certain institutions were simply deemed too big to fail and everyone carried on as though nothing had happened. Perhaps that should be the wealthy carried on as though nothing had happened. Recent figures show that since the “crash” of 2008 the divide between rich and poor has just kept on getting wider. The mass of statistics available to show that the markets can only be deemed efficient if efficient means the weakest go to the wall is staggering, yet that doesn’t stop even education being subject to market economics.

The latest facet of the educational landscape to fall into the clutches of current economic theory is school improvement.

Under the previous administration, there was a simple, if not popular, top down model that aimed to raise achievement by setting an agenda (Every Child Matters), providing resources and training to suit whatever aspect of the agenda was deemed to be most pressing, and employing an army of consultants to spread the word and monitor the effect. A vast array of materials was produced to steer and support the process of school improvement. Not all of it was remarkable, by any means, but some of it changed practice for the better. There was a relentless and entirely novel focus on teaching and learning, and a demand that potential be recognised and realised in all. The main measure was moving in the direction of progress, not thresholds (not “what grades did you get?” but “how much progress have you made?”)

All that has gone. There is still a moral imperative for schools to improve, of course, but the means of improvement are seen as something of a vacuum, which the market must swiftly move into and fill. The new thinking effectively says that it doesn’t matter who provides or brings about improvement, because the market will determine what is good and what is not, and the less good will wane and die because it will not be bought by cash-strapped schools who will of course spend wisely because of the need to ensure value for money.

Three examples are given by the Department for Education of how improvement may be brought about. First there is the school to school model. Currently, there is a drive to put in place “teaching schools”. It could fairly be argued that teaching is what all schools do, but this use of the name is in the same bracket as teaching hospitals, where world class expertise is made available to others in order to secure higher standards for all. These teaching schools will form alliances with lesser establishments and will nurture them towards excellence. There’s money in it, of course. Up ’til now, schools in the same locality have been competitive, striving to attract numbers and foster a reputation for excellence that will raise house prices in their catchment areas. The idea of giving away your best teachers and resources and ideas was anathema, but now you can be paid to do it in the form of a considerably bigger budget share for your school.

The second example is academies. Apparently, by joining forces and throwing off the constraints of the local authority and the national curriculum, academies will bring about a “levelling up” of the playing field.

And finally, there are the private and/or local authority outfits that will offer improvement services to schools (much the same services that they used to get for free), although now they will need to operate purely on a traded services model, offering packages, cut price deals and premium training to entice schools to part with the tiny part of their budgets that can be spared for staff development.

In all of these examples, of course, the market will decide who prospers and who goes bust.

And if standards don’t rise? Well, it can’t be the fault of the market, can it? As we know, the market is efficient.