2014-spagIt is bad enough that children are now tested at the age of 11 on SPAG, the derogatory term used by teachers and examiners for assessment of children’s capabilities in spelling, punctuation and grammar.   Any English teacher knows that a student’s attainment in these ‘skills’ (a term that requires unpacking in this context) is better tested through meaningful writing exercises rather than through decontextualised tests.

Now the situation is becoming worse, as Debra Kidd ()writes in her latest blog post, Testing without Brains:

<< When SATs were first introduced it was with the aim that a Level 4b would be an ‘average’ level of achievement. Very quickly this became an expected level of achievement for the majority of pupils and now it would seem that anyone falling below this (or its point score equivalent) is a failure. In order to address this failure, children will now be expected to resit the tests in Year 7. It’s a policy of such bum numbing stupidity I can barely be arsed to write. >>

Do read the rest of Debra’s post, which describes graphically how this policy will further degrade the quality of experience for pupils and teachers.  What strikes me most is the ineptness of the assumption that an average attainment should become an expected attainment.  This reminds me of one of the first signs of political interference in the curriculum, when GCSE was introduced in 1988. It was announced that grade F (the former CSE grade 4) would be the expected average attainment for GCSE candidates. Only in Britain, I thought, would government mark the attainment of the ‘average’ child with a grade F.  Of course, expectations rapidly changed and a grade C is now regarded as a ‘pass’ for all candidates.

These attempts to constantly pressure children and their teachers on attainment (especially when the skills are poorly defined and the validity of the tests is highly questionable) need to be reviewed by an independent, non-governmental professional body.  Unfortunately, there is at present no such body to act as a forum for discussion between the teaching profession and the Secretary of State for Education.

A new dynamic in education research


On a Saturday in May 2014, an educational research conference in a York secondary school was attended by well over a hundred people, the great majority of whom were practising teachers.   The conference organisers, researchED and the National Teacher Enquiry Network (NTEN), want to use research evidence to improve the quality of teaching and learning. More than twenty-five speakers addressed delegates in a programme that offered a wide choice of topics from ‘the learning brain’ through ‘classrooms as complex systems’ to ‘evidence-based teaching: making the prize a reality’.  All the presentations I attended were engaging and thoughtful, and I thoroughly enjoyed Debra Kidd’s drama-inspired way of demonstrating the complex systemics of the classroom (with respect to the teaching of reading, a particular interest of mine).

The means of communication and debate that united most of the delegates at the conference was neither membership of a professional association such as the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE), nor an academic affiliation.   Whether or not they had met before, many of the delegates knew each other virtually through Twitter and shared blogs. Indeed, several used their Twitter hashtag to identify them on their name badge.   Most importantly, they were united by a commitment to learning how to become better teachers through grounded educational research. Prompt questions offered in the programme included: What is the evidence-base behind this speaker’s presentation? Is their point of view contested?   What further research do you need to undertake to ensure you have a balanced picture?

This is a world of virtual connection and debate by enthusiastic practitioners with a shared commitment to the well-being of their students. Existing networks need to consider how they can work with this new dynamic. Recently I have been working with Sarah Wilkin on the English in Education archive. The journal is 50 years old this year, and NATE has commissioned work to make the archive more readily accessible to members and others. Like the delegates at the York conference, the teachers and researchers who have written for English in Education over the last fifty years share a commitment to education as a means of supporting, developing and enhancing the lives of their students. The purpose of the journal is evident from its name: it is about language in education (not only the teaching of English), and many of the papers and debates have enduring relevance to the classroom. We shall shortly publish an account of the first fifty years of the journal and intend to supplement this by a new thematic database. We hope that this work will provide a source of ideas and evidence for teachers whose attachments may be less to traditional research and teacher networks than to the blogosphere.