As part of the Michael Gove’s re-imagining of our education system, this academic year sees the introduction of a new grammar, spelling and punctuation test for children finishing key stage to this year, that’s the end of primary school, year six before they go and join the big boys and girls at secondary.
Now before I tell you why this test matters, why you should care, let me lay out my position on testing – I’m not entirely against it. Every system must have accountability built in. Schools and educators need to be held accountable for the progress that children in their care make. My argument here is not with testing, a debate we can get into another day, but with the chosen measure of progress and the way this will be tested. I will get to the test in hand, but first let me build you a picture of why testing dominates education.
A System of Fear
Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, does not mince his words. He has told teacher’s to stop ‘moaning’ that they don’t know what stress is, amongst his choice quotes. He is determined, it seems, to reign over an era of fear in the education system. Again, let me say, accountability is good – I believe in it. However, school’s should not live in fear of that accountability. If, in a given year, a cohort do not achieve, adequate progress is not made, school’s should be supported to discover why and improve teaching, either from within the organisation, or through partnership with a successful school, or a wider network, whether this is the LA, Learning School, diocese or other. Schools should know that failure will be met with support, not a visit from the dreaded inspectors. Accountability should be systematic and rigorous, not reactive and dictatorial.
In this current system, no matter the good intentions of staff, from the head to the classroom, there is an inevitability that educators ‘teach to the test’. How can they avoid it, in a system where the penalties for failure at this level are a teacher’s worst nightmare.
Pay and Performance
In another element of Gove’s big shake-up, a new system of appraisal has more directly linked teacher’s pay with children’s progress. Another level of accountability – good. However, it is another factor adding to the educator’s draw towards test led teaching.
Teacher’s don’t teach for the pay – if they did their maths is not good enough to be teachers. For the level of skill, pressure, emotional outlay involved, teachers are paid a pittance. However, a teacher likes a pat on the back as much as their young protégés. The profession has very few perks, the small mountain of chocolate and wine given by grateful parents at Christmas, and the beautifully long holiday’s (see Do I Need a Six Week Holiday) being the only ones that spring to mind. So, again, inevitability teachers will teach to the test.
Parents and Progress
Teaching is a mystical art. As a teacher, one comment I hear almost as much as, ‘When’s your next holiday then?’, is ‘I couldn’t do what you do.’ Now, I don’t say it but I do think it – ‘No, you probably couldn’t.’ Teaching is hard. Teaching requires a huge level of skill. Teachers have to be determined and committed. Teacher’s can never, ever have an off day. A teacher has to be a performer, a carer, a data-analyst, a facilitator, a mediator. Teacher’s have to give encouragement, manage behaviour, take abuse, recieve, process and resolve countless problems on an hourly basis, from the thirty vulnerable individuals before them. On top of all of this, teachers have got to teach. Every child has to make progress on several levels in several subjects every day.
And all of this is reported to parents as a level. Parents have three meetings, and one report a year with their child’s teacher. And I know that what the parents take away from those scant interactions is a number, compared against a number they were given in a previous meeting. It is one concrete thing in the magic of their child’s learning that they can grasp. Even more so, at the end of Key Stage Two. Teacher’s are asked, from the end of year 5 right through year 6, what level a child will achieve in the SATs. For right or wrong, levels matter to parents, and levels through standardised testing more so.
What about the children?
A teacher has thirty children. How often do they get to give each child a summary of their achievement? They have countless opportunities to provide a formative, running commentary of progress in the form of marking. (And any teacher worth their salt knows that dialogic marking is the most effective way to ensure children make progress.) But children care about a summary. Children want to know where they are against the standard of national attainment as well as against their peers. Very rarely will a teacher tell them, because educators know that the summative level is not what matters most. But, somehow, children cannot be dissuaded from putting all their eggs in the basket of their SATs results.
Grammar, Spelling and Punctuation
So, to the test. This year, children will be given an English level. Children will take this level and hold it as a badge of office for months, in some cases years. They care in a deep way about this level.
Previously that level had been assessed on their ability to comprehend a text in reading, (which has its own flaws that we won’t go into) and their ability to write – a forced, timed, ludicrous piece of writing, often one piece of prose and a letter, or report or recount. This test in many cases did not show a child’s true writing ability, given the pressure they were under. However teachers will tell you that the majority of children came out with the level they were working at. And, it was a measure of writing with its emphasis in the right place – the lion’s share of the marks came from composition and effect, not sentence structure.
Now, the reading test remains but the writing test has been replaced with the abomination which is the Grammar, Spelling and Punctuation Test, a largely multiple choice, box ticking exercise.
Children do not have to write in order to achieve a level in English. Teachers do not need to invest in the skill and art of writing in order to show children make progress in English. Schools do not need to push excellence in writing, in order to show they are ‘good’ or ‘outstanding.’
I was a professional writer before I grasped the difference between the possessive their and the positional there. Being a writer, I don’t need to know that I’ve just included a subordinate, non-finite clause. In order to write I do not need the meta-language of writing. I need the words and the beauty and the passion for constructing that true sentence. (Obviously you need a sprinkling of pretension too.)
This year many children who can write wonderfully, who can produce heart warming prose, but have no clue why an apostrophe doe’s not go where I just put one and dont know that I needed one there, who have no clue when they’ve used an adverb but do so creatively, aptly and naturally, will be given a level for English, which in no way reflects their ability to write. Children will build a picture of themselves as a writer around that level.
Testing matters to all stake-holders, educators, parents and pupils, it matters. It is of utmost importance that the right things are tested in the right way. This year time and money, passion and determination will be poured into getting children through this new test at the expensive, ultimately, of the children.
Earlier in this government’s term, their plans for the closure of libraries were lambasted by writers and educators and rightly so. The outcry about this new test should be just as loud. This year, because of the system which places test results at the heart of education, we are producing a cohort of children whose idea of writing has been warped by the rings through which we’ll make them jump. We should care deeply about the new Key Stage 2 Grammar Test.