I have dutifully watched the calm, measured youtube video series of lead HMI Inspectors ‘focusing on their specialisms and key issues.’ SEN, Early Years, IT (or is it computing? Is that with a capital?) Each one has been more reassuring than genuinely informative but perhaps that’s the point.

Then finally, scrolling through my Twitter feed, I become genuinely excited by an Ofsted alert that there is a new post by Sarah Hubbard, lead HMI for English: ‘Sarah Hubbard on the positives she’s seen this year.’ Linked here.

My word, really? It’s been a tough old year. Teachers of English in all phases have been reeling from the scope and the scale of change. At primary, a revised curriculum and so revised SATs, life without levels, Interim Performance Descriptors for teacher assessment of writing. At secondary, teachers have been digging deep with the final year of legacy specifications and iGCSEs with year 11, managing a route through the new more demanding specifications with year 10 and delivering a revised curriculum and assessment approach at KS3 with only a year under their belts. (Have we got it about right? Is it too much/not enough of a preparation for the new GCSE?)

In the midst of all of this, Sarah has seen some positives. At least enough to want to make a video (or be asked to make one – I wonder which?) This is worth a listen. Let’s take the three things for which she finds praise.

Positive number 1: Teachers making more deliberate, more thoughtful selection of texts. Teachers questioning whether long-term ‘favourite’ texts are sufficiently challenging and being ‘brave’ in including pre 20th century texts, even at primary. I have no issues there. Texts are the very fabric of the English curriculum vehicle. Text selection should provide beautiful, intriguing and dangerous places to visit: places where children would not choose to go were they left to choose a book independently. Moreover, it is coming to light that restricting the reading diet of lower attaining readers to texts at an instructional level, in school at least, is likely to be preventing progress. It is worth reading Tim Shannahan here and exploring his own blog.  Instructional texts are good for fluency practice, (like gentle jogging…) literature is essential for vocabulary, grammar, social, emotional and cultural development, (like a tough but rewarding training session.)

Positive number 2: ‘Without National Curriculum levels, schools have really tried to get under the skin of what makes effective writing.’ Actually, any schools I have worked with, who might be reading this blog, would rightfully claim that it was the demise of the National Strategies that led to a review of the teaching of writing. It was the writing sequence that started with – only and always – identification of genre features, followed by teacher modelling, shared writing and independent writing…to a recipe. Lots of useful pedagogies, but under the stranglehold of following the recipe. Too often this created pieces of writing, not writers. Schools I know have dug deep and thought hard to build a curriculum with rich writing stimuli, authentic purposes and reasons to write, not a series of copycat activities. Schools with a strong writing pedagogy and commitment to professional learning, were keeping level descriptors in their place. In the best schools, APP was not used to drive teaching, it was used as a periodic assessment lense. It could be managed.   Sarah praises the move away from ‘trite’ teacher assessment of writing and – here’s the thing – she cites the example of writing being assessed as a level 5 simply by the inclusion of a semi-colon or a colon.

This, I am afraid, is where my hackles began to rise. Firstly, I cannot recall higher-level punctuation ever being a significant marker of level 5 writing. The shift at level 5 was that writers employed techniques in service to their purpose and intent.  AF1 and 2 ruled.  Most importantly, it is exactly the ‘trite’ tallying of grammatical structures like passive tenses and punctuation marks that teachers and students have been subjected to through the introduction of the Interim Performance Descriptors. Primary teacher assessment of end of Key Stage writing has worsened. It is immeasurably more trite, more narrow and impacts more corrosively on teaching than NC levels. Having composition and effect as your driver, having your reader and their response as your guiding light as all but disappeared.  As a national lead in a government body, independent of the DfE, Sarah, the teaching profession needs you to notice this.

Sarah’s third positive? The way that schools have approached the grammar test, ‘They have really taken the opportunity to sharpen the way that pupils’ analyse the impact that language has on their audience.’

Nail in coffin.

There is strong research evidence to suggest that the right kind of grammar teaching can and does lead to pupils reading more critically and being more conscious and reflective of the choices they make as writers. This, I am happy to endorse and sing from the rooftops. There is nothing, however, in the grammar test that supports this principle. The test has the identification of features as its goal: zero awareness of impact or reasoning around choices needed. It mitigates against this educational goal by steering curriculum time towards labeling. And this is in the context of a language that does not sit always comfortably with strict grammatical classifications. Even in a sentence as simple as, ‘The girl went to the park,’ we could rightfully define ‘to the park’ as a prepositional phrase, the compliment of the verb and in functional grammar, see the phrase is acting adverbially. In too many instances, getting the label right is just not the point.

So, as an LA adviser of 15 years experience, on the subjects of deliberate choice of challenging texts, teaching and assessment of writing that is holistic and teaching grammar for purpose and effect, I would absolutely endorse and rejoice in what Ms Hubbard sees as positive moves in English teaching. These things matter. They could even be the surface manifestation of some deep and principled curriculum and assessment change happening in schools.

But my heart did not rejoice as I watched Youtube, my blood boiled. Why? Because the existence of the grammar tests and the content of the end of Key Stage writing descriptors are mitigating against such positive and welcome change.

It is not a coincidence that when the National Strategies and the QCA were axed, two heavyweight reports on the state of English teaching in England were published by HMI: Moving English Forward and Excellence in English. Their publication seemed to signal that HMI were being repositioned as the trusted central government voice on quality provision. Nothing that Sarah Hubbard suggests here would cause me to deny or want to refute this purpose – apart from the fact that she does not seem to have been living in the same country as the rest of us.

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