Sats: 'Gone are the days when perfectly good writers are unfairly penalised'

14th September 2017 at 17:21
Hopefully we will no longer see pupils that can write to undergraduate standard at a disadvantage for being dyslexic

After two years of campaigning and lobbying, we now have new frameworks for assessing writing at key stage 1 and KS2.

While the new approach is not a simple reversion to the previous incarnation of best-fit that we had under the old national curriculum levels, it does address some of the most significant issues that were caused by the secure-fit method.

The frameworks that have been used by teachers during the past two years have been met with almost universal criticism, and the consequences of the secure-fit system have been far-reaching. Perhaps the most frustrating of these was the way it unfairly disadvantaged pupils with specific issues in areas such as spelling or handwriting.

Teachers were being forced to tell children who were otherwise stunningly good writers that they had "not met the expected standard", purely because they had a specific spelling difficulty. We had the ridiculous situation whereby, theoretically, a child could produce GSCE- or even degree-standard writing, but not be judged to be working at the expected standard for an 11-year-old, purely due to spelling mistakes in their work.

Rather than leading to greater accuracy, the inflexibility of the interim frameworks meant that many children were being assessed to be working at a standard that was evidently below where they should be, which was both unhelpful and unfair.

The new framework makes it clear that a "particular weakness" should no longer prevent a child from being assessed fairly. This means that children with dyslexia who do not meet the spelling criteria, or those with a specific handwriting issue (and potentially those with both), should no longer feel like they have been set up to fail before they have even started.

It is also pleasing to see that the individual descriptors themselves have been revised, so there is slightly less focus on pupils' grammatical skills and a greater onus on the overall composition and effect.

There will be those who suggest that this revised approach somehow devalues the importance of certain aspects of writing, such as spelling or handwriting, or, worse still, that it somehow gives schools a green light to not teach these skills. Such a suggestion is insulting to the professionalism of teachers. I have never met a teacher who does not value or teach spelling, and a more flexible framework will not alter this. They simply wanted to see the end to a system that prevented them from making fair and accurate judgements – a system that encouraged a tick-box approach to teaching that they knew wasn’t in the best interests of their pupils. We also shouldn’t forget that we still have the grammar, punctuation and spelling test at KS2, so schools can hardly just abandon the teaching of spelling and grammar, even if they wanted to.

In the long term, I think we do need to continue to ask serious questions about the role of teacher assessment within the statutory-assessment system. Over the past couple of years, we have seen an increasing number of voices from within the profession questioning whether it is possible to have a reliable, accurate system based on teacher assessment, when it is so inextricably linked to a high-stakes accountability system. Many have also questioned whether the increased workload created by evidence gathering for moderation is truly worth it. We should continue to consider whether there is a better way.

Comparative judgement has the potential to offer a better long-term solution and I'm pleased that the government has shown an interest in this approach. That being said, the Department for Education was right not to rush in to adopting such a radically different approach until it had been fully trialled and the various pros and cons fully understood. We need to be absolutely sure that such a change would be for the better.

In the short term, while the changes have not created a perfect system, they have created a better one. Most importantly, we should no longer have children who are perfectly good writers being unfairly penalised simply because their teachers cannot tick every single box.

James Bowen is director of middle leaders’ union NAHT Edge. He tweets @JamesJkbowen

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