SPAG Day – Part One

It’s finally arrived – the week of the SPaG tests – spelling, punctuation and grammar. Thanks to the Internet we’ve all been able to read some excellent blogs and articles which explain in great detail the pointlessness and dangers of these tests.


But still they happen – because our ex-journalist secretary of state for education says they must happen. It’s his opinion against virtually the whole of the teaching profession, but they happen anyway. I can’t help wondering what the consequences would be if every school took the view that they were a pointless waste of time and refused to cooperate. But this is not the way teachers do things. We don’t have a strong, united profession, and so we do as we’re told.

To find some solace I’ve gone back to Ken Robinson‘s wonderful book, The Element, and have been re-reading the concluding part of the book. Since the late 1990’s, when he chaired the committee that produced “All Our Futures“, I’ve had the very highest regard for Sir Ken, as we should now call him.


Coincidentally, this morning, I came across someone on Twitter who’s written some nonsense about Ken’s TED talks – virtually accusing him of being a kind of showbiz presenter who’s had a malign influence on the TED talks – with so many TED presenters now apparently trying to imitate his style.

The person who wrote this critical piece, who I won’t bother to name, virtually implies that Sir Ken is some kind of charlatan, that his views lack substance, and that we would do well to ignore his radical critique of our education systems in the UK, the USA, etc.

Most of us have discovered that it’s pointless trying to engage with certain tweeters and bloggers who see themselves as dragon slayers or Goliath killers as they take time off from relentlessly ploughing their furrows on the Standards Farm, pursuing their own little bit of fame and fortune on the Internet and elsewhere. In any case, Sir Ken is well able to take care of himself.

Let his own words speak truth to government power, even if the powerful are currently refusing to listen, just as their New Labour counterparts refused to listen to the All Our Futures recommendations when they were brought forward.

Reforming Education

The mistake that many policymakers make is to believe that in education the best way to face the future is by improving what they did in the past.

There are three major processes in education:
the curriculum, which is what the school system expects students to learn;
pedagogy, the process by which the system helps students to do it;
and assessment, the process of judging how well they are doing.

Most reform movements focus on the curriculum and the assessment.

Typically, policymakers try to take control of the curriculum and specify exactly what students should learn. In doing this they tend to reinforce the old hierarchy of subjects, putting greater emphasis on the disciplines at the top of the existing hierarchy (the back to basics drive . . . )

[Sounds familiar?]


Next, they put greater emphasis on assessment. This is not wrong in itself. The problem is the method used. Typically, reform movements rely increasingly on the proliferation of standardised tests. One of the principal effects is to discourage innovation and creativity in education, the very things that make schools and students thrive.

[Sounds familiar?]


Third, policymakers penalise “failing” schools. In the case of No Child Left Behind, schools that fail to meet guidelines five years in a row, regardless of circumstances such as socioeconomics, face the termination of teachers and principals, school closures, and the takeover of schools by private organisations or the state.

[Sounds familiar?]


These schools struggle to conform to the hierarchy and the culture of standardisation, fearfully eschewing nearly all efforts at creativity or adaptation to the specific needs and talents of the students.
Used in the right way, standardised tests can provide essential data to support and improve education. The problem comes when these tests become more than simply a tool of education and turn into the focus of it.

More of this tomorrow.

We hope you had a happy SPAG day. Do let us know how it went.


About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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