In our previous post we set out the objectives for children’s writing by the age of 7, as outlined in a booklet written by Her Majesty’s Inspectors in the Curriculum Matters series. Our aim is to compare and contrast what a body of the nation’s best educational brains had to say about English 5 – 16 with what our current crop of politicians, who have now seized control of the curriculum and our system of high stakes tests, say they should attain. We’re doing this primarily for parents who are concerned about the undue stress and distress their children are experiencing as they encounter tests this week, tests which many adults find extremely challenging in terms of their expectations for knowledge of grammar and spelling.
What do parents actually want for their children? To enjoy school and to feel a sense of accomplishment as they become effective and enthusiastic writers – or to be able to memorise and regurgitate in a timed SPaG (spelling and grammar) test technical details of English grammar that most will not need in their lifetime, let alone by the age of 11? A body of information that won’t even make them better writers at their young age? We don’t think so – at least not as far as most parents are concerned. There is more than enough time during the next 7 years of compulsory education to become experts in English grammar, should there be a real need to do so. After all, the current crop of bright young people entering university to study English have somehow got there without the spur of a SPaG test. As for other subjects, the ability to express themselves effectively in writing is the key to future success in both academia and in the workplace, not the ability to analyse grammar by the age of 11.
So here are HMI’s objectives for 11 year old pupils, written in 1984:
Record experience and events accurately
Frame instructions and directions clearly
Write accurate descriptions of people, places and things
Write in order to persuade the reader to the writer’s point of view
Write informal and formal letters for a variety of purposes
Make notes as an aid to learning, as a prompt for the memory, and as an aid to planning
Write clearly about personal experiences and the thoughts and feelings generated by them
Explain processes such as how to make something and how to play a game
Be able to adjust the form, content and style of writing to the nature of the task and the needs of the reader
This a is a substantial and challenging set of objectives for 11 year olds, and one that teachers in primary schools apply themselves to with children of every background and every ability, including those with educational special needs and those with English as an additional language. But is it tough enough? Are these high enough expectations? Should parents expect more, and should children be challenged to do more?
The list continues:
Exercise sufficient control over spelling, punctuation (at least the full stop, question mark and comma), syntax, and handwriting to communicate their meaning effectively.
Use and control not only simple and compound sentences, but, where appropriate, complex sentences, in which ideas are linked through the use of main and subordinate clauses
Organise material into paragraphs
They should also know:
The rules of spelling
The functions and names of the main parts of speech (noun, pronoun, verb, adjective and adverb), and be able to identify these in their own writing for the purposeof discussing what they have written
The difference between statements, questions, commands and exclamations
The terms ‘subject’ and ‘object’ and be able to identify them in their own writing
That a sentence has a subject and a verb, and that the two must agree
That word order determines meaning
They should also be aware of differences between tenses, and recognise when the past, present, or future tense is being used
We now come to a section of the booklet that the authors call “Some principles of English teaching“.
In infancy we begin to acquire language because we need it, both to make sense of our world and to communicate. The same principle holds good throughout and beyond the period of schooling: the most effective way of developing language competence is by applying it to an increasing range and variety of real needs and real purposes, in which something of genuine interest is communicated. The teacher’s responsibility is to devise programmes of work appropriate to the age and stage of the pupils in which such needs and purposes arise.
Learning about language is necessary as a means to increasing one’s ability to use and respond to it; it is not an end in itself. It should arise from the activities of talking, listening, writing, and reading for real purposes; and take the form of encouraging children’s curiosity about language.
There is much confusion over whether grammar should be explicitly taught. It has long been recognised that formal exercises in the analysis and classification of language contribute little or nothing to the ability to use it. It is reasonable that pupils should learn such grammatical terminology as is useful to them for the discussion of language. But what and how much terminology they should be taught at any given stage must depend on how much they can assimilate with understanding and apply to purposes they see as meaningful and interesting. The least able at using language are the least likely to understand the terminology, let alone apply it in any useful way.
Notice how the HMI authors of this document put the learners at the centre of what should be happening in classrooms. “Useful to them.” “How much they can assimilate with understanding.” Were Her Majesty’s Inspectors the bearers of the dreaded flame of “child centredness”, and not “trendy teachers” and “union activists”? Certainly they cared a lot more about the learning and wellbeing of children than they did about league tables, SATs scores, SPaG scores, teaching to the tests and school performance measures, since these distractions and straitjackets hadn’t even been considered when this booklet was written. Nowadays we focus on data and test scores – not the individual pupils and their developmental needs. And heaven help the schools that fail to teach to the tests, to “drive up standards” and hit the government’s arbitrary targets. Forced academisation and its chains await.
Language exercises from text books or work cards are not effective means of initiating the learning of language skills. Such learning arises from the purposeful use of language. An exercise may be a useful way of helping a child to reinforce something he has learned through using language; but it should relate to an identified need.
Children have no need of SPaG tests or any other type of high-stakes test. Neither do our teachers and schools – who carefully assess and track children’s progress week by week. There is no need to put them through the stress of a test that will be used to judge the effectiveness of a SCHOOL. Notice that judgements about the school are now based on pupils’ success in the timed tests – not the school’s success in helping children to achieve the far more meaningful objectives set out in the HMI booklet.
Our politicians have never been able to cite research in favour of these grammar and spelling tests – because there isn’t any. Many of the high-achieving nations have either abandoned such tests or are planning to give them up. The CBI doesn’t want them. The heads of our most prestigious independent schools don’t want them. It’s time to hand the management of education back to our top professionals and thereby take it out of the hands of politicians.
Let’s do this for the sake of our children, and our teachers.