SPaG tests, writing objectives, and forms of assessment

This brief post is the third in our series reviewing what HMI had to say about the development of children’s writing in their Curriculum Matters series. It has particular potency in the light of this week’s national SPaG tests for all 11 year olds, which thousands of children and teachers have spent weeks and months preparing for.

HMIs were very clear that the assessment of writing development has to go far beyond mere tests of grammar and spelling, and yet these new tests have been widely regarded as the best way to force schools to “drive up standards” in writing and literacy. HMIs’ view was that too great an emphasis on the technicalities of writing at too early an age is likely to be counterproductive for both teachers and students.

They quote the Assessment of Performance Unit’s second report on language performance in secondary schools:

The ability to write, although dependent on separable skills, consists not merely of the mastering of techniques (such as spelling, sentence division or punctuation), but of their incorporation into a complex of cognitive and social abilities. Because writing is not simply a hierarchy of skills, but one of the means by which we make sense of the world and communicate it to others, the assessment of children’s writing needs to go beyond a consideration of basic skills; the ability to organise thought, to control the expression of feeling or to sustain a viewpoint for a particular readership are aspects of writing which assessment cannot afford to overlook.

HMIs then go on to say,

The best form of assessment of writing, therefore, is impression marking, which assesses a script as a whole communication, NOT as a summation of discrete performances in a set of skills.


In similar vein, schools need to be assessed in terms of their success in helping children to become effective writers, not in terms of their ability to get children to do well in tests of grammar and spelling. Will the government and Ofsted be able to do so? They have no intention of even trying to do so. In making judgements about schools they focus entirely on pupil performance in the timed tests, which is what makes the tests so very “high stakes” – for the schools, not the pupils.


The teacher needs to have in mind what the main elements of writing are, both so that the overall assessment will be a balanced one and so that particular strengths or weaknesses in what has been written can be identified and discussed with the pupil.

We distinguish the following elements: content, organisation, appropriateness & style, grammar, punctuation, spelling. (See previous posts for details of those elements at 7 and 11.)

Whatever the age and stage of the pupil, assessment must be related to the nature of what is being written. The point is most clearly exemplified in imaginative writing, particularly but not only poetry, where grammar may be, as it were, bent to achieve particular effects and punctuation may be omitted to produce, quite deliberately, the possibility of alternative relationships between ideas. Creative uses of language may sometimes reject accepted usage and forge their own disciplines, and it is legitimate and desirable for young writers to experiment in such ways. But such liberties with language need to be accompanied by a clear awareness of how and why accepted usage is being rejected and of what is needed in more utilitarian communications.

A question worth asking at the end of this SATs week is, whose education is it anyway?



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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