SPaG tests – How did we get here? HMI and English from 5 to 16

Back in the days when HMIs were the most respected force in the land for improving education they published a series of booklets called Curriculum Matters. The first booklet in the series was English 5 – 16. It appeared in 1984.

To become one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors was to reach the pinnacle of the profession. We’ve never met anyone who complained about them or suggested they were less than wise, experienced, realistic, objective, helpful, astute professionals. Therefore they had to be sidelined and the responsibility for school inspections handed to a new government agency called Ofsted in order to drive through the politicisation of education.

HMIs were responsible to the head of state and completely independent of the government of the day. Ofsted is responsible to the government for enforcing its objectives and agendas. Ofsted inspections have gradually been reduced to the analysis of data, for the most part.  The appointment of a chief inspector is a key post, and an indicator of the government’s intentions for education.

Ofsted’s inspectors could be anyone who could get through the Ofsted training course and find employment with the various contractors that were paid to carry out school inspections. Some of them were not qualified teachers, let alone had any substantial experience of managing and improving schools. They were the foot soldiers in the battle to “drive up standards”. [Clearly there were many excellent people working for Ofsted’s contractors, but we know that many stopped doing inspections when they realised how uncreative a box-ticking exercise it was, and how unsatisfactory for all concerned.]

HMIs, on the other hand, were obviously dedicated to improving education, not “driving up standards” – to raising achievement in the round, to improving teaching and learning, and improving schools that were failing or coasting.

So what did Her Majesty’s Inspectors have to say about English 5 – 16 back in those pre-Ofsted, pre-league tables, pre-Sats, pre-SPaG days?


On page 3, under the heading Objectives, they say,

The objectives that follow are not offered as discrete sub-skills to be taught and tested in isolation through ‘exercises’. They are aspects of language competence which should occur in the pupils’ experience of using language for the range and variety of purposes referred to in paragraph 1.5.

As the Bullock Report says, it is NOT the case:

“. . . that language abilities can somehow be extracted from context, taught in the abstract, and fed back in . . . The handling of language is a complex ability, and one that will not be developed simply by working through a set of text-book exercises“.

Or, indeed, working through SATs preparation and SPaG practice tests.

The Bullock  Report goes on to emphasise the responsibility of teachers for ensuring that pupils’ ability to handle language is progressively improved and extended:

“. . . we have equal lack of sympathy with the notion that the forms of language can be left to look after themselves. On the contrary,we believe that the teacher should intervene, should constantly be looking for opportunities to improve the quality of utterance.”

Essentially, then, the objectives can best be attained by setting tasks which require communication for real and realistic purposes and in which particular skills need to be used.

Objectives for 7 year old pupils


Write legibly
Write about personal experiences in prose and poetry.
Write simple stories of reasonable coherence
Write informal letters to relatives and friends
Set down directions and instructions when there is a clear purpose for doing so.
Use a sufficiently wide vocabulary for the purposes of their writing
Use a sufficient variety of sentence structures to express not only sequence (“. . . and . . . then” etc) but other relationships between events, experiences and ideas (“. . . when . . . because . . . if”, etc)
Use full stops and capital letters appropriately.

We wish the best of luck to all those taking the compromised Y6 SPaG tests today. We’d love to hear from teachers and young people about how much time and effort has been expended on preparation for tests which never really had (and never will have) any real purpose – apart from labelling certain Primary schools “inadequate” and forcing them to become academies.

We’ll continue with ‘English from 5 to 16′ and  HMIs’ objectives for 11 year olds tomorrow.


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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