Amid the gloom of unsavoury Sats and enforced academisation, comes one delicious moment of joy. Schools minister Nick Gibb doesn’t know his subordinating conjunctions from his prepositions. He can’t answer one of the questions he has set children. Despite this woeful (in his eyes) ignorance – though, tellingly, when his mistake is pointed out he says ‘This isn’t about me’ – he has managed to become and to remain a government minister. Need one say any more about the pointlessness of the Spag test?
At least by this time next week it will all be over. The country’s 10 and 11-year-olds will be free to enjoy their final few weeks at primary school, liberated from the government’s oh so very rigorous key stage 2 tests. Like them, I am tired of fractions, tired of conjunctions, tired, in fact, of being told of the need for ‘rigour’. The Education Secretary and the Chief Inspector need to wake up to the fact that rigour is a nasty little word, suggestive of starch and thin lips. Its lack of humour and humanity makes parents and teachers recoil. Check out its origins in one of those dictionaries you recommend children use.
Hopefully the weight of protest here, echoing many in America, will force some meaningful concessions from the ‘rigour revolutionaries’ in time for next year’s tests. Either that, or everyone with a genuine interest in helping young children learn will stand up and say No. In the words of CPRT Priority 8, Assessment must ‘enhance learning as well as test it’, ‘support rather than distort the curriculum’ and ‘pursue standards and quality in all areas of learning, not just the core subjects’. The opposite is happening at the moment in the name of rigour. It’s not rigour – but it is deadly.
Of course, the memory of subordinating conjunctions and five-digit subtraction by decomposition will fade for the current Year 6s – and for Nick Gibb – unless they turn out to have failed the tests. Mrs Morgan will decide just how rigorous she wants to be in the summer. Politics will determine where she draws the line between happy and sad children. Politics will decide the proportion she brands as failures at age 11, forced to do the tests again at secondary school.
But still the children have these few carefree weeks where primary school can go back to doing what primary school does best – encouraging enquiry into and enjoyment of the world around us. Well, no. Teachers still have to assess writing. And if my classroom is anything to go by, writing has been sidelined over the past few weeks in the effort to cram a few more scraps of worthless knowledge into young brains yearning to rule the country.
So how do we teachers judge good writing? Sadly, that’s an irrelevant question. Don’t bother drawing up a mental list of, for example, exciting plot, imaginative setting, inventive language, mastery of different genres. No, teachers must assess using Mrs Morgan’s leaden criteria, criteria that would never cross the mind of a Man Booker prize judge. Marlon James, last year’s Booker winner and a teacher of creative writing, was praised for a story that ‘traverses strange landscapes and shady characters, as motivations are examined – and questions asked’. No one commented on James’s ability to ‘use a range of cohesive devices, including adverbials, within and across sentences and paragraphs’.
The dead hand of rigour decrees that we judge children’s ability to employ ‘passive and modal verbs mostly appropriately’. We have to check that they use ‘adverbs, preposition phrases and expanded noun phrases effectively to add detail, qualification and precision’. (Never mind thrilling, moving or frightening, I do love a story to be detailed, precise and qualified.) We forget to read what the children have actually written in the hunt for ‘inverted commas, commas for clarity, and punctuation for parenthesis [used] mostly correctly, and some correct use of semi-colons, dashes, colons and hyphens’. Finally, it goes without saying that young children must ‘spell most words correctly’.
There are eight criteria in the Government’s interim framework for writing at the ‘expected standard’ – expected by whom, one is tempted to ask. Only one of the eight relates to the point of putting pen to paper in the first place. Aside from ‘the pupil can create atmosphere, and integrate dialogue to convey character and advance the action’, the writing criteria spring entirely from the Government’s obsession with grammar, punctuation and spelling. I fear it is only too easy to meet the ‘expected standard’ with writing that is as lifeless, uninspiring and rigorous as the criteria themselves.
If writing is not to entertain and inform, then why bother? In the old days of levels, teachers had to tussle with Assessment of Pupil Performance Grids – a similar attempt to standardise the marking of a creative activity. But at least the APP grids acknowledged that good writing should make an impact. Texts should be ‘imaginative, interesting and thoughtful’. Sentence clauses and vocabulary should be varied not to tick a grammar checklist box but to have an ‘effect’ on the reader.
So now we have to knuckle down and make sure children’s writing satisfies the small-minded rigour revolutionaries. Can we slip in a semi-colon and a couple of brackets without spoiling the flow of a youthful reworking of an Arthurian legend? How many times can we persuade our young authors to write out their stories in order to ensure ‘most’ words are spelt correctly. And what to do about those blank looks when we suggest that they repeat a phrase from one paragraph to the next to ensure they have achieved ‘cohesion’?
Mrs Morgan claims the ‘tough’ new curriculum will foster a love of literature. This is a mad, topsy-turvy world that includes too many ‘strange landscapes and shady characters’. It is good, at last, that ‘motivations are examined – and questions asked’. Keep up the good work, everyone. We can stop the rigour revolutionaries.
Stephanie Northen is a primary teacher and journalist and one of our regular bloggers. She contributed to the Cambridge Primary Review final report and is a member of the Board of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust.