Friday 2 November 2012

How Gove wangled the grammar test in.

What follows is a summary of a) how the 'SPAG' test came in and b) how I think it was fiddled. c) why I think this is educationally wrong and a scandal.

Can I urge anyone involved in the politics of this to raise these matters.

1. We have a spelling, grammar, punctuation and vocabulary test coming up in May 2013 - possibly with handwriting thrown in.

2.. How did this bit of education policy come into being? Where does it come from?

3. Gove introduced it on the 'recommendation' he says of the Bew independent review.

4. This review was indeed very thorough and when you read the 'Progress Report' its tone and method is fair and the section on assessment and accountability is backed up by massive amounts of data and research.

5. There are sections on Writing and Reading which are really just statements of belief. There is no data, no research to back up any of it. It really is quite inadequate.

6. Three months later, Bew produced a Final Report. In this report there is a recommendation that there be spelling, punctuation, grammar test. No evidence given, no data to back it up.

7. A few months later, Gove 'accepted the recommendations'.

There is clearly something very fishy going on here.

I suspect that what happened is the following:

1. Ruth Miskin was on the Bew committee. She is going to benefit financially from the SPAG test. Her Read, Write, inc., 'Comprehension' materials are being marketed as containing 'grammar' work. I think that she would have argued strongly within the committee that there should be a SPAG test. She argued for the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check.

2. Bew gave very good arguments as to why there should be no Writing test for Year 6 and that it should be teacher assessed. I think the SPAG test is a deal ie you can have your teacher-assessment for Writing so we can have the SPAG test.

3. Some time between the Progress Report and the Final Report, I think that Gove intervened either directly or through Ruth Miskin or through a civil servant. There is no trail that tells us why or how this SPAG test was created by Bew. No indication where it came from. There is no argument for it or proof that it's necessary. For me, that smells of jiggery-pokery. It has been introduced as a piece of political prejudice. Not educational theory.

4 The rhetoric about Gove 'accepting the recommendations' of the Bew report is, I believe, a hoax. Of course he accepted the recommendations. He, I believe, is the one who did the recommending!

The main reason why this is a scandal is that it will affect Year 6 (and Year 5, I suspect) education fundamentally. Back will come months of exercises and drills in 'grammar' for which there is absolutely no evidence that it helps with writing or reading - or indeed that most Year 6 pupils actually understand it.

(Just to recap from a previous blog on this: the explaining or describing of grammar is a highly abstract activity. The moment you talk about nouns or verbs you are looking at language not as words that refer to things and actions but to what kind of words they are. Then if you start talking about 'subject' or 'agreement' (as recommended) you are in effect talking about a second layer of abstraction ie  you're taking 'noun' and 'verb' and saying 'what does this 'noun' do? or how should this 'noun' behave' and you start having rules or descriptions based on this second level of abstraction. Very few 10 and 11 year olds can understand this kind of abstraction. They can do exercises where they follow the pattern laid out in an illustration or example - particularly if they are children who have read and written an enormous amount of stuff. But real understanding of abstraction and double abstraction is immensely difficult for that age of child. We don't teach them calculus for the same reason. Really. That's not a joke.)

This test (for the reasons in the section in brackets above this) will penalise children who are inexperienced readers. It will take up months of anxious classroom and homework drilling. Teachers will be forced to teach to the test, even though Bew and Ofsted have warned against it. And it will be pointless. It will take children and teachers away from important and significant work with language eg talking about language in use, language practice in books, and with people that the children know and can hear. It will take them away from reading books and printed stuff that they have chosen, an activity which is known to massively improve achievement and attainment at all activities in schools, particularly those connected with the written language.

So, I think we have a scandal on our hands. At the very least, there is a question of accountability. I can find no explanation on the DfE site as to why or how this recommendation for the test came in, or why or how this recommendation became policy. Everything else I've written above is of course what I think went on. I suspect we'll never know. Certainly there are no MPs asking questions about it in the House, are there?!

I have written a 'Dear Mr Gove' letter about it for next Tuesday's Guardian but it doesn't lay all this out in quite the same way because there wasn't space and some of the stuff to do with old 'reviews' and 'reports' is, I admit (!),  quite hard to follow.

However, if you are reading this and you are anything to do with someone who can raise these matters politically, please do so. I think I'm on to something here!