Are you marking mad?

4th July 2014 at 01:00

The rattle of the guns grew louder as we galloped inexorably onwards. As a shell exploded, Joey reared in fright but I galvanised him forward. My heart was in my mouth as I watched my friends dying for our country.

Suddenly, the ground erupted all around me. A bullet hit my helmet and ricocheted off. In the distance I saw the thing I had been dreading most - a tangled bush of barbed wire. With a sudden leap, I felt us soaring in the air as Joey leapt over the wire; then we were surrounded. My beloved horse was led off into the horizon until I could see him no more.

I read on with a surge of delight - this was what I went into teaching for. The author was 10 years old, the writing was inspired by a lesson on Michael Morpurgo's War Horse and the timing was perfect. I was about to head into a writing moderating meeting and for once I had a secret weapon - something to cut through the endless debate about semicolons and level thresholds. I proudly placed my ace on the table.

"Hmm," said one teacher, scanning the first few paragraphs. "Good vocabulary but I don't think she's punctuating at level 5."

"And I can only spot two types of complex sentences in the first three paragraphs," added another. "I think for a level 5 you really should be using a wider variety of clauses."

"But what about the way she engages the reader?" I said, my hopes evaporating. "There's tension and excitement here. It makes you want to read on and it makes grammatical sense. Isn't that good enough for a level 5?"

"Yes, but it must fit the criteria," I was reminded. "You should never give them the level unless they fulfil every aspect of the criteria."

"But that's ridiculous," I responded. "Surely they don't have to fulfil all the criteria in every piece of writing? That's like criticising King Lear for not having enough polar bears."

It seems to me that we no longer trust our instincts; professional judgement is out of fashion. Back when we had time to smell the roses, teachers would reward good writing with praise and encouragement. Now we stick to the script: four points for a semicolon and a bonus point for every subordinate clause you can crowbar in. Tick the boxes, calculate the level, write an improvement point, then move on.

The children know the drill as well as we do. Return a piece of writing to them and the first question they ask is, "What level did I get?" Under this system, I'm not sure even Shakespeare would have achieved a full score - his spelling would have let him down.

When did our approach to writing become so clinical? When a child hands you a piece of fabulous prose, you should leap on to your desk to read it aloud, send copies to the headteacher and lead an impromptu parade around the playground. If you must level it, give it a 27a. And for an improvement point, tell the child to keeping writing good stuff. That should cover all the bases.

Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands

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