Some years ago, a publisher asked me to prepare a set of key stage 3 English SAT tests in reading and writing which would ape the format of the actual paper. Using stimulus material from slightly more exotic sources than those chosen by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, we managed to create a product which sold well. Recently, the same publisher asked me to update the material so that it can be used as preparation for the new-style SAT, to be introduced in 2003.
A visit to the QCA website to study the changes was a sharp reminder of why, six years ago, I chose to leave full-time teaching. For here is a salutary lesson in what happens when you take learning away from schools and teachers, and put it in the hands of the politicians and civil servants.
Ye shall know them by their language: "scaffolding", "underpinning" (teachers double as building workers), "strands" (remember, "You're never alone with a strand"?) and "triplets of purposes" are here to haunt our classrooms.
The new SAT attempts to present the paper in such a way that it will be easier to identify specific areas of pupil weakness. Let us hope that the candidates are obliging enough to drop off their weaknesses at the appropriate points on the respective papers. As the QCA informs us, it will enable schools to more easily profile the performance of cohorts, classes and pupils. Of the three, I suspect that the statistical data produced by the first two is more important to them than the last.
What really taxes the thinking of the team who put together this scheme is how to break down the "identifiable elements of the complex unitary skills of reading and writing". Great theory, but any experienced teacher of English will tell you that real life doesn't work that way. In a rare shaft of honesty, the QCA admits as much, further down the page: "In practice, the elements all come together and are integrated in any individual act of reading and writing."
Ain't life a bitch that way?
But it is when we come to the testing of writing that the QCA minions click into gear. Their attempts to make sense of what they themselves have turned into the most convoluted of exercises really merits a walkover win in Radio 4's recent attempt to identify the red tape champ of the year. There are three pieces of writing on the new paper - one of which is to be "a longer writing task". The mark scheme consists of three strands (for example, strand A is "sentence structure and punctuation"), and each strand appears to have six bands for marking purposes. (Wake up, you may have to explain all this on parents' evening.) For a pupil to qualify in the bottom band, he or she must meet at least two basic criteria concerning "simple connectives" and "demarcated sentences". Assuming the criteria are met, what mark will they then be accorded? Nil, even though they have "shown some fluency and accuracy".
No one gets to write stories any more either. The best any candidate can aspire to in this kind of world is composing an imaginative text. No doubt the ultimate prize, supposing a candidate lands a level 7, is to be earmarked as a future writer of sample materials for the QCA.
So I shall tell my publisher that I am not interested in writing materials that take teachers even further down the road towards the status of technician. Soon we will have few classroom practitioners who can recall those heady days when choices and creativity were the best part of being an English teacher.
Alan Combes was a head of English for 26 years before retiring from the classroom in 1996