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.

75% against

75% is a pretty thumping majority. In a democracy, a win of that size is simply a landslide, and the winning side gets to do pretty much whatever they want.

Unless we’re dealing with the Department for Education.

The Blessed Michael appointed an expert panel of 4 august educationalists to draw up draft proposals for the new Primary curriculum. They were tasked with scouring the finest educational systems the world has to offer, extracting and refining the best of the best, and emerging with an educational system for 5 – 11 year olds that would be the nonpareil of the civilised world. Which is what they did. Only Michael didn’t like it. Unfortunately, the approach they came up with wasn’t at all what he expected, nor indeed what he wanted, and he made it clear that he required a different answer. Whereupon 3 of the 4 left, claiming that it was impossible to work for a minister who put ideology and prejudice before the best interests of children. One of them, Andrew Pollard, even wrote a blog about it.

Unperturbed, our Michael ploughed on regardless. He tasked Tim Oates, chair of the (now very depleted) panel to produce something much more like the ideas he’d had all along. What he really wanted was something akin to the musings of the American educationalist Ed Hirsch who seems to have made a profound impression on both St Michael and his henchman the Minister for Schools Nick Gibb. No matter that 3 out of 4 voted with their feet, as long as the remaining 25% could deliver the goods. Which Tim Oates duly did – although it must have been a lonely experience.

So it’s goodbye “when the child is ready” and hello prescribed year by year content. There are spellings that every child must know (although they only need to know them when they reach the right age, not before), and punctuation that every child must use correctly (by age 11 it’s the semi colon). Biennial tests will ensure that everyone is rigorously assessed with alarming regularity. As yet, we don’t know the penalty for failure, but expect the word “fail” to feature strongly henceforth.

There’s to be consultation, of course. It would be very undemocratic if Joe Public could not express a view. At the moment the tally seems to be 75% against, 25% in favour. So what if, when all the responses are in, 99% or so think the new National Curriculum is, to quote Andrew Pollard, “fatally flawed”? Will it be ditched? Rewritten to fall in line with majority opinion? Stripped of the ideological underpinnings that make it so prescriptive? Alas, no. We must always remember that St Michael is a member of a democratically elected government. He is doing his sovereign duty by serving the people who elected him to do what he thinks best.

Besides which, his friends’ children will go to private schools, where they wouldn’t touch the National Curriculum with a barge pole.

W(h)ither writing?

I’m in a lot of Primary schools at the moment looking at the writing done in Year 6. One of the many things that strikes me is the loving care that pupils devote to presentation of the finished product. A piece of writing may take a week or more to develop, with various teaching strategies used along the way to draw attention to different aspects of composition and technical accuracy , but there might be another week in getting the piece to the standard required for inclusion in a “Theme” or “Topic” book. Often this will include the selection of paper that looks right for a particular effect, and a typeface will be chosen to enhance the look. Various images might be placed around the central text, and a whole panoply of pockets, fold out charts and arrows added to assist the reader.

What happens to this impressive approach to writing when little Johnny moves up the road to the local Secondary? The evidence suggests that he’ll get an English exercise book which might be used for anything and everything from rough notes to scribbled drawing to full length stories. Presentation will be very low down on the list of priorities, if there at all, and the opportunity to produce something via a computer is usually limited to those who have the time and the inclination to do something with their final version at home.

Does this matter? If Johnny’s writing improves, isn’t the presentation aspect merely decorative? Well, to some extent yes. But – and it’s a big but – the art of presentation makes up a goodly chunk of the way writing is perceived in the modern world. Since the vast majority of writing now requires a keyboard rather than a pen, the look of the piece becomes all important. It’s why people spend ages poring over the most appropriate theme for their blog, or tinker endlessly with the look of their web pages. The content is, presumably, enhanced by the look. If your first reaction to a piece on your screen is, “Ugh, that’s hideous!”, you’re presumably less likely to be influenced by the words of wisdom contained within the offending design.

So w(h)ither writing? Do we just have to accept that “they do things differently in big school”, or that interest in the look of something inevitably fades, along with interest in writing at all as puberty kicks in? If the proportion of time and energy devoted to presentation in early secondary school could match that in primary, would progress in writing slow down? Somehow, I doubt it.

Marking time

It’s that time of year again. The annual ritual of marking Key Stage 2 tests has begun, with the inevitable practice session on the Online Marking System. The system doesn’t really change year on year, except for a few minor tweaks, but we’re all forced to go through a little rehearsal to test our competence in checking attendance registers and entering marks, just so we show that we can do it – exactly as we did last year.

The principal difference this year is that most of us are only marking the Reading paper. For some reason best known to himself, St Michael of the Gove decided that teachers could be trusted to come up with levels for Writing themselves. Except of course that they couldn’t. The Local Authority has to sample 20% of its schools, with fully trained moderators turning up to verify that the poor Year 6 teachers haven’t cheated and given their entire class Level 4 or better. (Funny how LAs come in so handy sometimes, isn’t it? Most of the time they’re lambasted for being an inefficient and bureaucratic burden on the schools.) So out go the mind-numbing spelling test and the Shorter and Longer Writing Tasks – or perhaps that should be outsourced – and we’re left with 35 questions to mark, most of which are either right or wrong, much like Maths questions. That we’re allowed to mark them speaks volumes for the fact that it’s difficult to get the marking wrong, so schools are unlikely to complain about their Reading marks and levels (though no doubt some still will).

So … London calling, and the prospect of a long morning holed up in a windowless hotel room with a Team Leader’s voice exhorting us to be fair and accurate in all our work. Oh yes, and definitely to meet our deadlines.