‘The primary interim writing assessment framework belongs in the shredder’

The DfE needs to act to change the way writing is assessed at primary, particularly for the sake of dyslexic children. Here's what it needs to do, says one teachers' leader

James Bowen

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There now appears to be a general acceptance, certainly within the profession, that the key stage 1 and key stage 2 interim assessment frameworks for writing are not fit for purpose. I suspect that even those within the Department for Education know that a change is required.

The decision to move from "best fit" to "secure fit" has clearly been a major part of the problem. However, simply shifting back to a "best-fit" approach using the existing framework would not in itself solve all the issues. The whole framework, with its skewed focus on the technical aspects of writing, at the expense of creativity and flair, needs an entire rethink.

While every child (and indeed teacher) has suffered at the hands of this framework, those children with dyslexia have been particularly disadvantaged. Many children and parents of primary-aged children with dyslexia will feel that the current framework simply sets them up to fail. In order to be judged to be "working at the expected standard", a child needs to be able to spell most words from the Year 5 and 6 list correctly. For many children with a specific learning difficulty, such as dyslexia, this creates an almost insurmountable barrier.

The flaws of primary assessment

It simply cannot be right that highly creative, imaginative and, indeed, grammatically accurate pieces of writing have to be judged to be below the expected standard purely because of a specific spelling difficulty that a child faces. Even worse than this, many may not even be able to reach the "working towards" standard if they struggle with words from the Year 3 and 4 list.

Remember, this is a list that includes words such as: "disappear", "occasionally" and "possession". It is nonsensical that a child could write with the imagination and flair of a young J K Rowling or Philip Pullman, yet be told they have effectively "failed" their primary writing assessment based on a spelling issue alone.

I can’t help but wonder how many of our most successful authors writing today would have been told they were below the expected standard for writing at age 11 based on this approach. It is widely reported that many of the world's most influential writers struggled with spelling, including F Scott Fitzgerald and Jane Austen. 

Double disadvantage

Children with dyslexia are actually doubly disadvantaged by the current system, as spelling is effectively assessed twice. Not only is it within the teacher assessment framework, but it also gets tested again in the SPaG test. The fact that the spelling and grammar elements are lumped in together to give one single overall score means that a dyslexic child’s secure grasp of grammar is not recognised because the spelling mark pulls them down.

So what can be done?

In the short term, there are two quick fixes the government could implement:

  1. Remove the spelling criteria from the interim framework;
  2. Report the spelling and grammar scores separately.

In the longer term, it could move back towards a "best-fit" style approach where spelling is not a limiting judgement. Alongside this there is an opportunity to explore alternative forms of assessment, such as comparative judgement, which take a more holistic approach and therefore do not penalise dyslexic pupils in the same way.

School-based solution?

From a school perspective, for now it is a case of trying to mitigate the worst effects of the framework for dyslexic pupils.

Of course, in the first instance it is about trying to help all children do as well as they can, and it goes without saying that there should be appropriate support and intervention in place. After that, there is some sense in speaking with parents of children with specific spelling difficulties to ensure that they understand how the framework and test work and why the overall "result" may not reflect their child’s true ability as a writer.

Depending on whether and how your school shares results with pupils, careful thought should also be given to explaining the situation with them, too. Sharing examples of successful writers who have had their own struggles with spelling can be useful as it shows that even some of the best writers find spelling difficult.

For the sake of all primary-aged pupils, but particularly those with dyslexia, let’s hope that we are soon able to "relocate" our copies of the interim framework to a more suitable location – the shredder.

James Bowen is a former primary headteacher and now director of middle leaders' union NAHT EdgeHe tweets at @JamesJkbowen 

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