Just say no

19th October 2012 at 01:00

There is a memorable scene in The Singing Detective in which the hero, played by Michael Gambon, who is lying in hospital with a debilitating skin disease, is about to have cream rubbed into his loins.

He needs to think fast about something to prevent him from being aroused. He's a man desperately seeking distraction: "A Welsh male-voice choir, wage rates in Peru, Elvis' birthday ... "

I'm doing something vaguely similar in seeking respite from ranting on about the summer's GCSE fiasco. Instead I'm toying - like a child faced with a plate full of shrivelled broccoli - with chewing over something different but equally unappetising.

Rather than rail against a recent examination disaster, let's look at the next one: the Year 6 grammar test.

First, I agree with our secretary of state and his former schools minister that grammar matters. In fact, if Michael Gove thinks grammar is important then Nick Gibb thought it was very important indeed. They are right. With the self-righteous and grizzled assurance of 28 years as an English teacher, I would advise everyone to use grammar when speaking and writing.

We know that children's literacy improves through a rich diet of language in the classroom, building, we would hope, on a rich diet of language at home. A child brought up on books and conversations with adults has the best start in life and the best chance of success at 18.

Even we plebs recognise what Cicero taught us: "A home without books is a body without soul."

A huge job is to be done in raising literacy levels urgently, and building grammatical confidence will be a part of that. But here's how not to do it: by introducing a Year 6 grammar test.

Looking at the sample materials on the Department for Education website is like peeking through a steamed-up window at a world of Enid Blyton's making. Pupils are asked to find the subordinate clause in this sentence: "Although his Mum thought they were very smart, Peter disliked his new trousers."

One 10-year-old had a go at a similar exercise. He was asked to rearrange the words "the", "pen", "the", "in", "put", "sheep" and "I" to make a sentence. He wrote: "I put the pen in the sheep", which, if potentially a case for animal cruelty, was certainly grammatical.

It's all as funny as it is cynical. The DfE has latched on to the fact that in this country it is tests and exams that drive teachers' behaviour. Madcap decontextualised grammar tests will lead teachers to dish out a succession of exercises. It's doubtful whether these will teach children to read better or write better or improve their grammar. Then we will get the hastily stitched-together English Baccalaureate Certificate (EBC) without a secondary curriculum. Bleakly, again, exams will drive teaching.

So before matron brings back the screens and doses me up for the next onset of GCSE delirium, allow me to shriek again. Let's brandish our new-found independence, that sense of proud autonomy that Gove so often ascribes to school leaders. Whether it's primary grammar tests or the secondary EBC, it's time, firmly and ever so grammatically, to say no.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds.

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