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Exclusive: Top adviser calls for rethink over 'really demanding' grammar test for 11-year-olds

Tim Oates warns of a 'genuine problem' about testing primary children on subordinate clauses and fronted adverbials

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Tim Oates warns of a 'genuine problem' about testing primary children on subordinate clauses and fronted adverbials

One of the main architects of England’s national curriculum has urged ministers to rethink “really demanding” grammar content after problems with this year’s Sats for 11-year-olds.

Tim Oates, who chaired a government-commissioned review that led to the introduction of the new curriculum from 2014, told TES there was a “genuine problem about undue complexity in demand” in the content that formed the basis of this year’s spelling, punctuation and grammar (Spag) test.

He made his comments as headteachers’ leaders warned that heads could boycott Sats next year unless significant changes to primary assessment begin in the next few weeks.  

Mr Oates, research director at Cambridge Assessment, said that the content for 10- and 11-year-olds – including subordinate clauses, fronted adverbials and the subjunctive form – “went through quickly in the last few months of the [national curriculum] review”.

Mr Oates said that he had advised ministers to rethink the curriculum in the wake of problems with this year’s tests. He suggested that grammar teaching should focus on how to apply rules to complex language instead of increasing the “complexity of language about language…so you inevitably have to hit things like subordinating conjunctions”.

The level of complexity

The current approach, introduced in September, meant that naming grammatical constructions was being “studied just as something in its own right that needs to be remembered”, Mr Oates said. “It’s pretty clear that the complexity that’s there in Year 5 and 6 is really, really demanding and…we need to really seriously look at that, to see whether it represents far too demanding a requirement.

“We need to step back from that to say, ‘How should we manage our national curriculum?’ Should we let problems build up…or, if a problem should emerge – and I think there is a genuine problem about undue complexity – that should be addressed as fine-tuning of the national curriculum.

“That’s been my advice to the government in the wake of the problems that were detected this year, not only through the assessment but the schools’ comments on the learning associated with Year 5 and 6.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The national curriculum was designed to help children to master literacy and numeracy early on, which will prevent them falling behind and struggling for the rest of their lives.

“The latest results show that the new requirements, while challenging, are achievable – with 72 per cent of pupils meeting the expected standard in grammar, punctuation and spelling at key stage 2.”

This is an edited version of an article in the 26 August edition of TES. Subscribers can view the full story here. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. You can also download the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. TES magazine is available at all good newsagents.

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