The government’s key stage 2 spelling, punctuation and grammar tests are the modern-day equivalent of being beaten with a ruler, according to bestselling children’s author Michael Morpurgo.
“The first thing I learned was that words were something you spelled,” the former children’s laureate says of his own schooldays. “If your spelling was bad, you got put in the corner. And if you were really, really bad, you got the ruler.”
Obviously, pupils are no longer beaten in school. But the 72-year-old argues that testing them serves the same purpose: “The way that I grew up, in the 1940s and ’50s – that’s where we’re back to now. It was about testing, success and failure, and the consequent punishments.
“The punishment is different now – it was a ruler on the back of your hand then. But if you create tests, then you create successes and failures. It’s the same thing. It’s a sense of corralling children, somehow, instead of letting their creativity grow.”
No room for creativity
Morpurgo is best known as the author of children’s books such as War Horse and Private Peaceful. He is speaking to TES as part of this week’s special edition, focused on the teaching and learning of grammar (see “Why you’re wrong about grammar”, pages 26-32).
His precise reaction, when TES mentions the grammar special edition, is: “When are you going to do an edition on creativity?” His point is that teaching grammar, with the aim that children will use their grammatical knowledge to become effective writers, gets the order all wrong.
“The whole notion of these kinds of grammatical concepts being important at that age – I just think it’s weird,” he says, referring to the technical terms used in the new grammar curriculum and tests for 11-year-olds.
“Things like parsing [analysing the grammar of a piece of text, as examined in the new tests], I used to be terrified of that,” Morpurgo says. “I could never do that, and it put me off writing.
“It’s putting the cart before the horse. That’s where we’re going wrong, and overdoing it time and time again. Putting the cart before the horse, and horses really don’t like it behind carts, it has to be said.”
But Morpurgo stresses he is not arguing that grammar should not be taught: just that timing is vital. “The whole purpose of language is to communicate,” he says. “It’s really important that they learn grammar and punctuation, in order to communicate. It’s simply a question of when and how.
“It needs to be based on a love of reading, and a love of stories, and a love of writing. Then the whole thing comes alive.
“Far better to give children a love of words, and then come to the grammar later. Then, they’ll say, ‘Ooh, that’s interesting. I didn’t know it worked like that’.”
Ideally, he would like to see curriculum time given to activities that allow creativity to flourish: writing, reading and storytelling. “Never turn storytelling into reading comprehension,” the author says.
“Don’t quiz children. Let them walk out of the classroom at the end of the school day, asking questions about the story. Continuing the story in their own heads.”
Ultimately, Morpurgo believes, policymakers need to ask themselves what the purpose of education is. “Even if it’s simply to service employers, it’s still not efficient,” he says. “Certainly, it would be more efficient if children came to their learning with willingness. We cannot force-feed children to love something.
“Yes, you can teach to the test – get our children as successful as South Koreans are – but there’s something about the whole child that’s missing there. We want children to grow up thinking, questioning.”
And, he adds, just because grammar is made up of rules and structures, that does not mean that it has to be taught in a rule-driven, highly structured way.
“The whole thing needs more creativity,” Morpurgo says. “It needs to be designed around the child. That’s what education is for – to find the genius in every child, the talent in every child. Our job is to tease it out, not to throttle it by fear and tests.
“We’re teaching for life. The real test is, in 30 years’ time, how many children in that class have become lovers of books. But we don’t test like that.”
Schools minister Nick Gibb said that the best results were achieved by those schools that encouraged voracious and challenging reading. “We want pupils’ imaginations to be inspired,” he said.
Read more from this week’s grammar special on pages 26-43
Michael Morpurgo is the founder of Farms for City Children, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. For details, see the website farmsforcitychildren.org
The tale of a war hero who just wanted to teach
Michael Morpurgo is currently writing a book based on the true story of a war hero who wanted nothing more than to stand in front of a classroom and teach.
Morpurgo’s maternal uncle, Francis Cammaerts, was a pacifist who thought that education was the only real way to liberate people. When the Second World War broke out, he registered as a conscientious objector. However, when his brother Pieter was killed in action, he felt obliged to enlist.
A fluent French speaker, he was recruited as an agent with the Special Operations Executive, and parachuted into occupied France. After the war, however, he returned to his first love: education. He was headteacher of Alleyne’s Grammar School, in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, for nine years, before moving into teacher training. He served as a professor of education in Nairobi, and set up a teacher-training college in Botswana, before retiring in 1987. He died in 2006.
“To me, he was just an uncle,” Morpurgo says. “It’s one of those stories that’s been in my head all this time, and I just thought: now’s the time to write it.”