Sats: barking dogma and a grammar catastrophe

28th April 2016 at 16:00

I am not 11 years old. I am significantly older than that. But I am no wiser.

I have been a journalist all my life and edited two magazines. I have even been a chief sub-editor: what this meant in practice was that I had the job of chief pedant and lorded it over all other journalists on staff, rewrote their stories and corrected their grammar and punctuation.

I love grammar. Hell, I can spot a clumsy infinitive construction at 20 paces and insert a big fat adverb slap bang in the middle of it because I know that the sentence will read more elegantly. I know that there is no grammatical basis for avoiding splitting infinitives, so I confidently split, and heaven help anyone who tries to bravely argue with me. Like Raymond Chandler said, “God damn it, I split it so it will stay split.”

That confidence was riding high when I sat the key stage 2 English grammar, punctuation and spelling sample paper. How hard could a test for 11-year-olds be? I whipped off the test in 20 minutes – the full 45 minutes was clearly for children and pedant pussies – and sent it off for external marking. I was left with a strange feeling, as though I had been tested more on whether I knew what a tool was called than whether I knew how to craft something beautiful with it.

I got a mark of 80 per cent. I had asked for feedback on my answers – foolishly, it transpired, because there was no basking in grammatical glory for me. In fact, it soon became obvious that I had learned little since school. All I have learned is that I am consistent: I still make the same mistakes.

Twice, I got that dreaded phrase: “I’m afraid you haven’t read the question properly.” For one question, I had the right answers but had circled the words instead of ticking them. In another, I had circled the letters that needed capitalising and not the words, as asked. What can I say? I’m a free spirit; I don’t follow instructions. You should see my Ikea furniture.

I failed to spot an adverb (there was obviously no infinitive hanging around to sandwich it between), got the present perfect wrong and got one determiner wrong out of three so lost all marks (I wasn’t sure I knew what one of those was, so I was surprised to get as many as two right). I lost a mark for circling too widely and including the next word (an “a”), too – I have big handwriting.

On the bright side, I got one “excellent” from the marker and one “show-off” for correcting the grammar of a question.

I don’t know whether I met the required standard. No one does yet: that will be set at a later date. But for many teachers, the expectations of the new “tougher” KS2 tests in English grammar and mathematics are unrealistic.

The problem, says primary teacher Lucy Rycroft-Smith, is that the tests are deeply flawed (pages 24-30 in this week's TES magazine).

While the national curriculum that they purport to be examining aims to be broad and bold, the tests themselves are narrow and unadventurous. They are supposed to show that children are secondary ready but, in the main, fail to do that, too.

That’s not the only problem. Their implementation has been chaotic, with teachers getting few materials and little preparation time.

Year 6 children will sit these new tests in a couple of weeks. I wish them luck.

I am not 11 years old. I am considerably older than that. For once, I am pleased to be so.


This is an article in the April 29 edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available at all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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