‘Take this absurdly difficult English test – and see why this generation of students will be alienated by education’

Only a tiny minority of the current cohort of students will learn to love learning under the current regime, argues the general secretary of a major teaching union

Mary Bousted

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Let’s get the brain cells working with a few of the type of test questions school students will be doing this year. (The correct answers are at the end – but NO cheating.)

  1. Underline all the determiners in this sentence: "Two apple trees screened the open windows on one side."
  2. Complete this sentence so that it uses the subjunctive form: "If I ____ to have one wish, it would be for good health."
  3. Identify the verb form that is in the present perfect in this passage: "Rachel loves music and has wanted to learn how to play the piano for years. She was hoping for piano lessons, and was delighted when her parents gave her a keyboard for her birthday."
  4. Is the phrase "where my father works" in this sentence a preposition phrase, a relative clause, a main clause or a noun phrase? "My baby brother was born in the hospital where my father works."
  5. These test questions are for which test?
  • AS-level language?
  • GCSE language?
  • Key stage 2 spelling, punctuation and grammar (Spag) test?

Did you get the right answers to questions 1–4? And did you guess how old the children are who will have to answer them? It may surprise you (it horrifies me) to learn that these are sample questions for the key stage 2 Spag test, to be taken by 11-year-olds.

This test marks the end point of a grammar-filled primary school career.  Children in Year 2 (aged 6-7) will learn nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, noun phrases, past/present tense, progressive form, statements, questions and commands. In Year 3 (aged 7-8) pupils will learn conjunctions, subordinate clauses, adverbs, prepositions. In Year 4 (aged 8-9) children will be introduced to noun phrases, determiners, adverbial phrases, possessive pronouns. Year 5 (aged 9-10) will bring relative clauses and pronouns, modal verbs, and in Year 6 (aged 10-11) – subject and object, active and passive voice, subjunctive, synonyms and antonyms.

I don’t know about you, but I am exhausted just reading the list above.

The pitfalls of grammatical drilling are well known, and well evidenced. An obsession with describing language takes teaching time and attention away from children developing their own language abilities. They need opportunities to read widely and to write stories, because stories are our way of making sense of the world – of sequencing time, of understanding emotion, of learning how to describe what we see and feel in ways that are powerfully affecting for other people – our readers.

While I have absolutely no objection to learning grammar – indeed I think it is helpful for children to understand the basic building blocks of a sentence (on which fluency in writing is based) – the level and range of grammatical terms outlined above are daunting and counterproductive. What is tested is what is taught, and the danger is that children experience a passive literacy curriculum where their abilities as apprentice language-users and creative writers will be neglected because there is just so much grammar to get through.

This curriculum is the direct result of a government’s Gradgrind approach to curriculum development. What is wanted are facts. What is neglected is the application of knowledge to real situations and purposes. A government minister recently questioned me about why children did practical maths in primary schools. I replied that a good way to understand volume was to pour the same amount of water into different shaped beakers. This made real two concepts – that volume was different from shape, and that it had three dimensions. The minister replied that I was advocating a wrong approach. Pupils needed to learn the theory of volume before they went anywhere near applying it.

I explained to the minister that his theory of learning would be suitable for some children, but, I ventured to suggest, a small minority. The majority, I argued, needed to combine theory with its application, through play in the early years, and then throughout their education through making and doing, through experimentation and creativity, and through practical tasks which have real outcomes. In these ways pupils would recognise the practical relevance of the theoretical concepts they were being taught, and work to improve their understanding and knowledge. In the absence of a real end product for their learning pupils would memorise facts, learn equations and regurgitate them in tests, but then quickly forget this learned knowledge because they could not see its relevance to their needs or interests.

My arguments cut no ice with the minister.

The BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace turns our attention to all things Russian and reminds me that it was a Russian genius, Lev Vygotsky, writing in the 1930s, who provided teachers with a powerful theory of learning. He wrote: ”Practical experience…shows that direct teaching of concepts is impossible and fruitless. A teacher who tries to do this usually accomplishes nothing but an empty verbalism. A parrot-like repetition of words by the child, simulating a knowledge of the corresponding concepts, but actually covering up a vacuum.”

Nearly 100 years later, we would do well to remember these words and to consider their implications for the current national curriculum in England. We are in danger of creating a generation of young people for whom education is another country – and they do things differently there.


  1. Two apple trees screened the open windows on one side.
  2. If I were to have one wish, it would be for good health.
  3. Rachel loves music and has wanted to learn how to play the piano for years. She was hoping for piano lessons, and was delighted when her parents gave her a keyboard for her birthday.
  4. My baby brother was born in the hospital where my father works. (A relative clause)

Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. She tweets at @maryboustedATL

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Mary Bousted

Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the National Education Union. She tweets @MaryBoustedNEU

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