Thousands of high-achieving dyslexic children are expected to be marked as failures under the government’s controversial new primary writing assessments, TES can reveal.
Pupils must be able to spell most of the 200 words on government wordlists (see graphic, opposite) if they are to reach the “expected standard” for writing at the end of Year 6.
But teachers and leaders are furious because the Department for Education has said that no allowance will be made for the tens of thousands of pupils with dyslexia. Experts in the condition predict that they will all fall short on the spelling requirement.
Heads argue that failing bright dyslexic children who trip up on spelling – even if they pass all the other 17 elements of the writing assessment – will unnecessarily damage their self-esteem. One former government literacy advisor describes the emphasis on spelling as “ignorant and cruel”.
The NAHT headteachers’ union and the charity Dyslexia Action are warning that the DfE’s stance could be discriminatory and are demanding that it is changed.
Janet Marland, head of Cavendish primary, West Didsbury, Manchester, said: “It would be great if we were allowed to use professional judgement with a child with specific difficulties. But discretion has been taken away.
“[Pupils] work on computers, but we have to remove the spellcheck. It’s like taking a wheelchair off a wheelchair-bound child – you are taking away what helps them.”
The news comes in the week that the DfE was forced to issue a clarification following widespread anger about the new writing assessments (see bit.ly/DfEclarification).
Teaching unions have said that the standards were set higher than people expected and that the assessments will unnecessarily add to teachers’ workload.
There are also concerns that pupils must demonstrate legible and fluent handwriting to be judged to have reached the top “working at greater depth” standard (see box, “Good handwriting doesn’t make a good writer”, opposite).
The DfE stance over dyslexia is revealed by John McRoberts, head of teacher assessments at the government’s Standards and Testing Agency (STA), in a DfE video filmed to offer schools guidance on the new assessments (watch it at bit.ly/DfEwritingvid).
He was asked how teachers should apply the assessments to “high-achieving dyslexic pupils” with “specific issues related to spelling”.
“Regarding spelling, it is a quite a simple response, which is that there is no change to how you approach a child with dyslexia or without, regarding the statements within the standard,” Mr McRoberts replied.
“So if a child cannot meet those standards because of a spelling concern, or is unable to show consistent evidence against the parts of the standard that referred to spelling, they cannot be given that standard, and they will have to be given the standard below.”
Dr John Rack, director of education at Dyslexia Action, says that around 10 per cent of children have dyslexia and he expects all of them to struggle to meet the new spelling requirement. That amounts to around 58,000 pupils in England’s current Year 6 cohort.
Dr Rack predicted that even dyslexic children who “do fine in class with modest amounts of support” could be “tripped up badly” by the assessment.
“It’s invidious and it’s possibly discriminatory,” he said. “It’s undermining dyslexic kids who are quite competent at writing, but can’t spell.”
Russell Hobby, NAHT general secretary, said: “We have significant concerns about the treatment of children with dyslexia. We are worried that there is a risk of discrimination.”
Pie Corbett, who advised on the Blair government’s National Literacy Strategy, said that the DfE stance was “ignorant and cruel”.
“Children who find spelling a challenge will be not be at the expected level,” he said.
“This muddles spelling with accurate, effective composition and, while in an ideal world everyone would be able to spell, to suggest that a child who composes at a high level but has a profound spelling weakness is not an effective writer is highly destructive.
“Some of our best young writers will learn to believe that they are failures.”
A Department for Education spokesman said: “Spelling and handwriting are key elements of the national curriculum in primary school. To enable all children to reach their full potential, it is essential that they develop their skills in these areas, including those with dyslexia.”
Over the page, Pie Corbett talks to TES about the government’s approach to primary grammar.
Good handwriting doesn’t make a good writer
Teachers say that it is unfair that primary pupils cannot be awarded the top “working at greater depth” standard for writing unless they also have legible and fluent handwriting – even if they have met every other criteria.
Rob Carpenter, executive head of Woodhill and Foxfield primary schools in south-east London (pictured, right), said that making the handwriting and spelling requirements dealbreakers worked against moves to help children achieve greater depth in their learning. “Handwriting and spelling are more about procedural fluency than mastery of a subject,” said Mr Carpenter. “Mastery is about pupils being able to use their learning in a range of contexts. You can have great handwriting and know nothing about writing, you can have fantastic spelling without knowing how to use those words.
“Spelling and handwriting are necessary but their weighting should be proportionate.”
‘I’m a headteacher – and I’d fail to meet the standard’
“I’m dyslexic, I’m a headteacher and I wouldn’t have met the expected standard,” says Michael Dillon, who leads Birch Hill primary, Bracknell, Berks (pictured, right). “It’s outrageous.
“It seems unfair that if you are dyslexic, then right from the beginning you are going to fail.
“I am dyslexic. I wouldn’t say that I am severely dyslexic, but it is still a fight to spell words. That is what it is. My spelling is weak. I get all my letters proof-read by one of my senior teachers or PA. I will frequently miss words out and at phonetic spelling, my 7-year-old is better than me.
“But I have got a BA in primary education and a masters degree in computing and education.
“It becomes a broader argument about ‘best fit’ assessment versus tickboxes. With tickboxes, you have lost that discretion, so I would fail. That doesn’t mean I am not intelligent – and that is the real issue.
“Some of these children have got specific difficulties that mean they will not achieve the expected standard – but they are good, competent writers. Now they will be told: ‘You haven’t met the standard.’”