Sunday, 24 July 2016

The problem with writing in UK schools

From Secret Teacher in the Guardian

Sir, can you read my story?”

It’s a request that fills me with dread, because I know what will follow.

I will read the story and delight at how well developed the characters are, how effectively suspense has been built up and how great the 

But none of that matters. All that matters in year 6 are the interim teacher assessment frameworks. These make it clear that writing an engaging story is of secondary importance – what really counts is being able to use the passive voice, chuck in a modal verb, employ cohesive devices and throw in some semi-colons.

I read the story. It’s good and the author is rightly proud. However, it doesn’t have many sentences starting with conjunctions and it is lacking colons and semi-colons. According the government-devised scheme for judging writing, this child is not working at the expected standard.

I have no choice but to convey some of this in the hope that this pupil will include some more fronted adverbials next time and please the powers that be. There is no room for discretion or negotiation in the framework.

This approach to assessment is supposed to be raising standards, but I do not see how. The children in my class have not become better writers this year. They haven’t had as many opportunities to be creative. They haven’t been able to focus on good story writing.

They have, however, become more technically proficient – but is this really what matters? When we read a brilliant story, do we exclaim: “I loved how Charles Dickens used that semi-colon to separate two independent clauses” or “I like Roald Dahl but I wish he had used the passive voice a little more often”?

No. Instead we delight in falling in love with the characters or feeling the tension as they get into difficulty. The assessment frameworks tell our children that creativity and exciting plots are not important. They encourage children to see technical aspects as the central requirement of good writing.

The frameworks are also largely useless in providing helpful information to secondary schools. Take two children, Ali and Grace. Ali can do almost everything mentioned in the interim frameworks for the expected standard. In fact, he can also do some things which indicate that he is “working at a greater depth within the expected standard”. But he is missing one thing: he has not used a single hyphen in his work. This means Ali is below the expected standard for writing. 

Grace, on the other hand, has used a hyphen in addition to jumping through all of the other hoops, so she is at the expected standard. And so secondary schools will be told that Grace is a better writer, on the basis of one hyphen.

At least under the best-fit model, in the bygone age of levels, there was some rationale for one child being a 3a and another a 4c. The blunt interim frameworks essentially make the assessment information meaningless for our secondary colleagues – and the impact will be felt by the children in the longer term, as they deal with inaccurate targets. The irony is that the government’s relentless drive for higher standards may actually end up damaging aspirations.

Teachers hoped that the huge flaws in these frameworks would mean that they were scrapped quickly. We hoped that the government would listen when we said the standards were too focused on grammar. We hoped that common sense would prevail. No such luck. It was recently announced that they would stay in place for the 2017 assessment cycle. And so another group of children will have their creativity suppressed in favour of technical box-ticking.

What they need – what we all need – is a system that ensures children can write good stories, letters, arguments and reports. This system must be realistic about the punctuation and grammatical features that 11-year-olds can be expected to use. This system could actually give useful information to parents and teachers.

It is not too late to save a generation of children from drowning in a sea of technical proficiency. But we must act now to save our future authors.

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