For a while, maybe a little over two years, the school leadership at Christ the Sower has been trying to find a way of ensuring that children learn what are sometimes referred to as “basic skills”. By this we mean a range of skills, arranged in a systematic and progressive fashion, that children acquire and practice to release the learning that they need from year to year. What it does not mean is that we hammer spelling for its own sake, or handwriting to the point of calligraphy, or times tables for recitation purposes. None of those. They are tools to release children into a greater freedom so that when writing or reading or problem-solving, they are acquiring the tools they need to do these, at an increasingly automatic level, the understanding lodged in those responsive and easily recalled parts of the mind. There will be no basic skills classes, just a way of teaching to make sure that these things are taught, reinforced and used, from year to year. That’s all.

And the skills will be diverse. We begin with such things as arithmetic skills (number bonds and multiplication tables) and language skills (presentation, punctuation, spelling) because they are well established, part of the life of the learner already and will need little change in our practice to ensure that these skills become a more fundamental part of school life. But we are also valuing observational drawing, the memorisation of poetry and the learning of singing as well. These are vital skills, easily practised, that can add a huge amount of confidence, joy and direction to children’s lives. And then we want to think about fitness – what basic fitness skills should we expect our bodies to be able to do from year to year? All good things, difficult to argue against.

And it is in this spirit, of giving children useful “releasing” skills for their future learning, as a gift, that we want to pursue the “basic skills agenda”.

To encourage us on our way, in the blue corner, there is the much heralded KS2 English Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling Test which will be with us for the summer term to check that we have been doing just those basic skills that the gove-rnment wants us to teach. Can you think of a more likely outcome to this announcement than a) Y6 teachers all across the country will start teaching to this and b) that unscrupulous publishers will be right there, second guessing the department’s every move and trying to flog “practice papers” to schools at every opportunity? To quote from just one such, Rising Stars publications, pupils will benefit because “these new resources will enable teachers to deliver weekly practice to focus on these essential English skills and help pupils to improve their skills and raise attainment”. I am a little worried now that Y6 teachers will be seduced by this guff and asking me to order them.

But in the red corner is Michael Rosen’s latest letter (he writes to Mr G monthly through the good offices of the Guardian). This is worth a read, because it is one of the most succinct arguments about writing and the purpose of the aspects of writing such as grammar and punctuation that you will find in a short article. His essential argument goes along these lines:

  • There is no evidence that grammar, punctuation, vocabulary as categories contribute to the overall ability of children to write. It is writing as a whole that is to be assessed.
  • The purpose of the test in grammar seems to be to show that children are good in grammar. And the only reason Lord Bew’s report had for suggesting it was that it lent itself to aspects of testability. Which means that someone in the DfE is hanging around the school bikeshed looking for things to test.
  • There is no indication in the departmental letter to parents about how teachers will build these skills into the lives of learners  – forcing teachers therefore to teach to the test. And remember, weaker teachers will do this earlier than good teachers.
  • Because there will be similar tests at 16, they will be used as another silly benchmark for secondary schooling. I quote:

children will be doing similar tests at 16 and doing this test now will “improve their chances of succeeding in important qualifications later on”. We know from this year’s GCSE fiasco that students’ grades were rigged to match those they got at Sats when they were 11. Following from that logic, this new test of children won’t be about “improving their chances” at all. It’ll be about clamping children into expectations set up at 11, which then turn into outcomes at 16. That’s scandalous.

  • There will be an emphasis on testing these skills because they can be “right or wrong”, but no indication of how they will be used to help writing.
  • There is a healthy lack of research to show that 10- and 11-year-olds’ writing will benefit from this kind of testing, whilst there is an abundance of research to demonstrate that those who read a lot and read for pleasure a lot are far more able to write well when they try, especially if their reading is chosen by themselves. Rosen finishes

What’s more, children who are reading like this are able to do this kind of test without doing hours of exercises. Your sample test on the DfE website shows illustrations of correct answers. Experienced readers deduce the principle in these and apply it to the question being asked. I’ve seen them do it. This test will penalise children who aren’t given help in getting the reading habit. You have sitting on your desk a report issued by Ofsted with a “recommendation” that all schools develop policies on reading for enjoyment. That recommendation has remained a recommendation. Meanwhile, you’ve turned Lord Bew’s recommendation, which was given with no evidence whatsoever, into a statutory requirement for all schools funded from the public purse.

It is a fine balance, clearly. Teaching the skills needed within the context of reading and writing has always been a key goal of successful schooling. What can happen, and what Gove is reacting against, is the fact that in encouraging writing, these “releasing” skills have not been well taught, often because some teachers themselves have inadequacies in this area, and children have been held back in their writing development as a result.

But it is not the most important thing. It should NOT be tested. School leaders, on the other hand, would be foolish not to ensure that these skills are not a daily part of their teachers’ English lessons, contributing to the strong, formative assessment of children’s writing and being alluded to and taught through high quality teaching of reading, as children learn the landscape of what is involved in being a competent writer.

Because, as anyone who has read an OFSTED report will know, the world is in dire need of competent writers.

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About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

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