Friday, 5 April 2013

The Spag test is a hoax.

Many Year 6 teachers coming back to school after the break may well be fed up and anxious about the Spag Test.

1. In January 2013 on this blog, I wrote a series of blogs about grammar for your use. These aren't for children. They are meant as a kind of rough guide to grammar for you as adults and as teachers. Please use them, print them off, circulate them. They will cost you nothing. They are for you. It's sometimes argued that people like me are 'against grammar' or that 'anything goes'. Neither I nor anyone from 'our camp' thinks this at all. However, we do have strong views about what we think is suitable and right for teaching to children and young people, depending on their age and experience. That is a quite different matter.

2. The Spag test has come in on a hoax. You will see that it's being justified on the basis that Lord Bew recommended it in his Independent Review. We need to unpick this. This report was set up to look at 'assessment and accountability' and in both the Interim Report and the Final Report, this section of the Reports is very well referenced and evidenced. It does all that an academic document should do. I suspect that most of the references and evidence came from Dylan Wiliam. Then, tagged on the end of this report comes a section on how KS2 would be assessed and the writers of the Report recommend that there should be a spelling, punctuation and grammar test, because questions on these matters have 'right and wrong answers'.

Please note, this section has no references, no evidence.

3. Michael Gove then accepted this 'recommendation.

That's how policy is being made by this government.

4. The statement that questions about spelling, punctuation and grammar have 'right and wrong answers' is false. In fact, we as speakers and writers operate with alternatives. Of course it isn't an entirely open field where 'anything goes' but one in which speakers and writers make choices on the basis of who they think is listening and reading. If the Lord Bew statement was correct, language would never change. (If you look at that last sentence of mine, you'll see that I wrote: 'If the Lord Bew statement WAS..." We have two alternatives there: to write 'were' or 'was'. That's because in the evolution of language, even those who try to maintain that there are only 'correct' and 'incorrect' forms have had to accept that 'was' and 'were' are legitimate alternatives for that construction.)

As an exercise, if you are interested in language, you might like to keep a note of these 'legitimate alternatives' in spelling, punctuation and grammar as you read newspapers, text books, fiction and the like. Take any so-called 'rule' that you are supposed to be teaching and see if it really holds good in all circumstances. Just as a starter, look at the ludicrous nonsense that you're supposed to be teaching about the semi-colon and see how it is used - or most likely, not used - 'out there'.

5. The Spag test is a means to an end. As happens again and again in education, what happens is that the systems of assessment are not purely or only for use by teachers to assess children. They are part of a structure of controlling teachers, schools and education. This is called 'accountability' but in fact it's about setting one school against another in league tables. There is absolutely no evidence that this system of accountability 'levers up standards'. All it does is build failure in to the system. Because schools are judged this way, this makes it less likely that experienced teachers, experienced schools will help each other because that is helping your competitor! Manchester United don't help Arsenal in the League table of football so why should Outstanding Street Primary School help Struggling Street Primary School? They may do, and sometimes do, but not to the extent that they could in order that all teachers and children get the best.

So the Spag test will be used to build in failure. As I've argued in the previous blog, we should be quite clear that failure is very important in the present climate. The economic system is requiring an army of passive, failed people in order to keep wages down. Whether they know it or not, successive Education Ministers are producing an education system which guarantees failure. The Spag test will be more of the same.

6. From a purely educational perspective, people who work out how and what to teach when it comes to language, have a choice. One route is to take language as a series of small facts, each of which is correct or incorrect. This enables the small facts to be taught and tested. Another route is to think of language as a system run by human beings. The human beings - of all ages - make choices in order to make language work for them and the people they are with. This is not a matter of being 'correct' or 'incorrect' but more a matter of working out what is appropriate, for the different circumstances we find ourselves in.

If we're really interested in helping young people to understand language and to find out what is or is not appropriate, then language has to be treated in the same way as we might teach any other human activity: investigate it and explore why and how people are saying or writing this or that.

Language proceeds through 'agreements' between its users. This means that they aren't really  'rules', they are 'conventions' (ie doing what is conventional in those particular circumstances) and 'patterns' - repeating what has been done and creating 'variations' or 'variants' for any given point.

7. If the government had been serious about helping children with spelling, punctuation and grammar, they would have brought linguists, applied linguists and experienced teachers together to talk about what is or is not possible for the different ages of children. There would be discussions about whether talking in over-simplified terms about language involves not telling the truth (which is what I think) or is ultimately helpful. There would be assessments of whether a tiny minority, a large minority or a majority of children really did 'get' the kinds of ideas about language being taught.

Instead, a few faceless people have taken the unevidenced, unreferenced comment by Lord Bew's report, cooked up a set of tests and imposed them on schools, teachers and pupils for the prime purpose of grading schools and setting them against each other.

8. If there is evidence that spending all this time, effort and money improves children's writing let's see it.