Before July 14, I was happy. OK, I’m lying, but who cares about the feelings of someone barely out of NQT nappies? Certainly not the education politicians who can break teachers with a brisk sweep of a policy brush – ‘Heh, let’s abolish levels!’ ‘Tell you what, let’s assess all subjects … all the time!’ (Pause for righteous fear and loathing.) Yet, though the powers-that-be are not remotely interested in the content of my opening sentence, they are interested in its grammar. They care about my use of the word ‘before’.
How do I know? Well, back in July, I read these three sentences on the Department for Education website:
‘We left the cinema before the end of the film.’
‘The train ticket is cheaper before 9:00 in the morning.’
‘I brush my teeth before I have breakfast.’
I then read the accompanying question: which of the sentences uses the word ‘before’ as a preposition and which as a subordinating conjunction? Hmm. Tricky. First, I had to put aside any normal thoughts such as train tickets are actually more expensive before 9am. And isn’t it better to brush your teeth after breakfast? Never mind the human drama that lurked behind the decision to leave the cinema early. Spilled popcorn? Spilled tears? The sight of a lover with a rival… Stop!
Yes, I admit it. I didn’t know the answer. As a child of the 1960s, I was not taught grammar any more than I was taught the scientific composition of the paint we used in art. ‘Today, children, we will be learning how to collect and dry the corpses of female cochineal beetles. Artists can use the resulting red colour to paint fabulous sunsets…’
In that BG (Before Gove) era, the explicit teaching of grammar was regarded as harmful. Young imaginations risked being cabined, cribbed, confined. Young minds would be pained by concepts too abstruse for them to grasp. No longer. The question on the use of the word ‘before’ appears in the sample Grammar, Spelling and Punctuation test, published on July 14, and intended to be taken by Year 6s in 2016. Hedged about by caveats and disclaimers, this test is nevertheless the only concrete example of the ordeal that awaits the current Year 5s – and their teachers. Remember, the 2016 test is going to be Much Harder (ungrammatical use of capital letters for emphasis) than its three predecessors as it is the first to be based on Mr Gove’s new primary English curriculum – the one which devotes 15 more pages to spelling and grammar appendices than it does to actual aims and content.
The sample test does include a little story, no doubt a sop for those who pleaded for grammar to be taught in context. What a shame it is a pitiful non-story about a squirrel in a park notable only for an unnaturally large number of semi-colons and colons. Helpful hints for teachers also appear. One reads ‘this question assesses the ability to transform given verb stems into the past progressive form, and understanding of the term.’ Clear as mud is the simile that springs to mind. Don’t the powers-that-be realise that some children in Year 6 struggle to remember their full stops and capital letters? Shocking maybe, but true.
Gove’s decision, back in 2012, to impose a formal grammar test on Year 6 children was hotly debated at the time. The NUT and the NAHT talked of a boycott. Michael Rosen argued powerfully that this pernickety, ‘there-is-a-right-answer’ approach to grammar was wrong-headed in linguistic terms. He also warned that it was yet another mechanism to control schools and would add to the ‘army of passive, failed people’ needed to keep wages down. Even the government’s own advisers warned against it.
So of course in 2013 the Spag test, based on the old curriculum, went ahead. Now the protests have faded – or at least so it seems to me. Occasionally last year, I would look up from my marking/assessment/lesson planning/resource hunting/display mounting/behaviour managing/weeping to wonder why no one was shouting any more that teaching young children about fronted adverbials was not going to help them read, write or function as human beings FULL STOP.
Instead, there are now numerous education resources and organisations promising to help teachers with their modal verbs and relative clauses. The message seems to be, ‘No one really believes in teaching this stuff, but here’s a way to do it.’ But if no one believes in teaching it, perhaps – radical thought here – it shouldn’t be taught. What a shame teachers are not permitted, in accordance with CPRT principles, ‘to exercise the responsible and informed autonomy that is the mark of a mature profession’.
After all, as the final report of the Cambridge Primary Review pointed out, ‘the goal of literacy must be more than just functional’. Literacy should confer the skill ‘not just to read and write but to make these processes genuinely transformative, exciting children’s imagination, extending their boundaries and enabling them to contemplate lives and worlds possible as well as actual’.
I did extend some boundaries this summer. Sadly I was not planning literacy lessons rich with talk of how to write wondrous stories, whimsical poems and powerful letters to politicians. Instead, I was shamefully and secretly working on my grammar. My time could have been so much better spent – and so could the children’s. Let’s ditch the grammar test before* it is too late.
* subordinating conjunction or preposition? You decide.
Stephanie Northen is a teacher and journalist. She was one of the authors of the Cambridge Primary Review final report.