Gove’s grammar test – political meddling as bad as it gets

Be honest, can you confidently answer this question?

Which option completes the sentence below so that it uses the subjunctive mood?

I wish I———————–free to come to your party, but I am afraid I will be busy.

Tick one.

were
could be
was
may be

It’s taken from the DfE’s sample KS2 ‘English grammar, punctuation and spelling test,’ for first assessment in 2016. There’s a KS1 version as well. These ominously dubbed ‘GAPS’ are designed to assess understanding of the new content in Gove’s revised and highly prescriptive 2014 primary curriculum. The question does seem a tad tricky for a 10 or 11 year old, doesn’t it? Mindyou, it is the tenth question and they are supposed to “appear in order of difficulty, where possible.” So let’s have a look at the first.

Fill in the gaps in the sentence below, using the past progressive form of the verbs in brackets:

(to play)

While I ————————————in the park, my mum

(to push)

———————————————my sister on the swing.

Reassured? No, I’m not either. And what’s with all of this decontextualized naming of parts anyway? Well according to Appendix 2 of the revised primary curriculum, which lists the grammatical terms to be covered from Years 1 – 6, an emphasis on formal grammar instruction during the primary years will raise standards in writing and ensure learners are ‘secondary ready’: “Explicit knowledge of grammar is very important, as it gives us more conscious control and choice in our language.” We are led to believe that if pupils can understand and apply the correct grammatical terminology, they will become more “sophisticated” writers.

This is erroneous Daily Telegraph-pleasing opinion, stated as fact. However, we would be naïve to expect anything different from the Department – and especially in relation to English, about which anything Gove doesn’t know isn’t worth knowing. It must also be remembered that the debate around grammar has always inflamed passions and policy in this area has tended to reflect changing attitudes in society rather than academic research. We have not served our children at all well in this regard.

The dominant view from the late 1960s was that “Most children cannot learn grammar.. and to those who can, it is of little value” (Thompson, 1969). Grammar instruction was seen as positively damaging – divisive and a shackle on the imagination. The pendulum began to swing the other way with the introduction of Labour’s National Literacy Strategy in 1997 and with that, ‘Grammar for Writing’. There is indeed some good evidence that ‘sentence combining’, developed initially in the USA, is effective. Several studies, cited in Richard Hudson’s comprehensive review of grammar teaching, support a ‘surreptitious approach’: that is, minimal terminology underpinned by a clear theory of grammar. This is of course precisely what Alan Peat’s engaging ‘Pocket App of Exciting Sentences’ offers us and, significantly, explains its popularity. In the end, teachers do know what works.

But of course Gove would never have any of this. We knew nothing. We were ‘the blob’; the enemy of world-class education and true ‘academia’. We weren’t to be consulted and simply had to accept, amongst all of the other nonsense, that lots of impressive grammatical terminology and a ‘rigorous’ test of it in Year 6 would raise standards. “Children will flourish if we challenge them but the Blob, in thrall to Sixties ideologies, wants to continue the devaluation of the exam system” Gove explained.

Nicky Morgan has changed the tone but not the message and now the profession is left to pick up the pieces. Many of these will be very sharp. Not least the requirement for 85% of learners to achieve expected levels in all SAT tests from 2016. We ignore the arid and age-inappropriate GAPS programme at our peril, therefore, and clearly we are going to have to use all of our creativity as teachers to persuade struggling nine-year-olds that distinguishing your modals from your subjunctives is fun.

Neither will we be able to kid ourselves that we are engaged in this struggle for any reason other than to meet floor targets. The ‘GAPS’ is a fundamentally inauthentic test in that it has nothing to offer the learner – but strife. It is simply a check to ensure that Gove’s prescriptive curriculum is taught. Think about it – if the explicit teaching of grammar was really introduced to raise standards in writing, as is claimed, then why does the SAT assess the means, grammatical knowledge, rather than the end – proficiency in writing? It makes no sense. The equivalent would be to score Tom Daley on his warm up routine rather than on his dive. But as we’ve seen, Gove’s curricular equivalent of the warm up carries with it a politically important impression of rigour and, regardless of whether it helps them attain genuine standards in writing or not, children from September will be urged to master the drill. After which they can forget it.

Our children deserve so much better than this. “A completely archaic 1870s elementary-schooling-for-the poor curriculum”, to quote Professor Terry Wrigley of Leeds Metropolitan University, will do nothing to equip young people with the skills essential for success in 21st century life. This truth is perfectly exemplified by Gove’s irrelevant GAPS assessment – a test that has nothing to do with genuine standards and everything to do with politics.

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