SPaG test – this assessment belongs in Room 101
Though rigorous and high-quality grammar teaching is essential, the current system needs an overhaul, says Simon Kidwell
In May 2022, we will see the return of statutory assessments for 10–11-year-olds in England. Although the government has made the sensible decision not to use school-level results to rank performance, one aspect of the current testing regime definitely should be permanently consigned to education’s Room 101: the SPaG test!
Let me explain. My principal objection to the SPaG (spelling, punctuation and grammar) test is that the content of the grammar curriculum on which it’s based isn’t fit for purpose.
Grammar in primary school
Almost all of the teachers I talk to recognise the importance of teaching grammar, but the current practice of shoe-horning it all into the primary years without building on it at secondary is completely wrong-headed.
Statutory testing at ages 10–11 is long-established, and, apart from in 2020 and 2021, every one of my 28 years of teaching has included SATs. I’ve worked in a rich variety of schools, too; some with the highest test outcomes in their locality, and some with the lowest.
I am broadly supportive of national testing at the end of KS2, but there are still problems with the blunt accountability levers applied to SATs results.
For example; I recently spoke to a former student of our school, Mary Smith. She was part of the first cohort of children that took the new SPaG tests in 2016.
At the time, Sky News visited the school to ask pupils about the assessments, and Mary said: “All through my primary school, I’ve been learning about connectives to join sentences together, but now I’m in Year 6, I’ve got to learn about subordinating and coordinating conjunctions, and it’s really confusing.”
Mary is now in sixth form college, and I asked her to revisit her Sky News interview. She reflected on the complex grammatical terms that she learned at primary school, and told me that the concepts weren’t covered in any depth when she got to high school.
When I asked Mary to explain the terms ‘coordinating’ and ‘subordinating conjunction’, she couldn’t. For the record, Mary is an A* student, part of the Oxbridge programme at her college, and one of the most conscientious pupils I have ever taught. Yet, she remains bewildered by why she was taught some of the more complex grammatical concepts at such a young age.
And it’s not just pupils that are flummoxed. Plenty of teachers don’t agree with the system either. To test this theory, I posted the following on social media back in March:
Since 2014 I have spoken to a senior politician at the DfE and experts in the field of teaching grammar, and I am yet to meet anyone who believes that the current grammar curriculum for primary schools is fit for purpose or age-appropriate.
I had plenty of replies.
One teacher, Alison Vaughan, commented: “The overloaded grammar curriculum holds back learning for those with poor working memory and slow processing. These students are already working hard to remember punctuation and spelling […] They need more time consolidating the basics, not complex terminology.”
My colleague, headteacher Michael Tidd, added: “I think some of it is just pointless at primary level (I’m looking at you, subjunctive form!) and ends up being overly simplistic because of that. I think much of it is too soon: expanding on nouns is useful, but teaching ‘expanded noun phrase’ as required terminology to six-year-olds, in the same year as the criterion to ‘write capital letters of the right size’ is clearly absurd. It just feels like someone planned a 5–14 curriculum that made sense and then just squashed the grammar part!’
Objections extend beyond the classroom, too, with The Times reporting that the government’s key curriculum adviser, Tim Oates, said that there was a “genuine problem about undue complexity in demand” in the content of 2016’s SPaG test. A lot of the issue, then, is with curricular sequencing, or a lack thereof. The teaching timeline for these complex concepts is out of whack, and we need to reconsider at what point we should be expecting our pupils to understand and absorb them.
Even Ofsted acknowledges the importance of a well-sequenced curriculum. Its School Inspection Update from January 2019 states: ‘Since knowledge exists in rich schemata, an effective curriculum ensures that pupils are taught concepts and skills in an order that enables them to make useful connections that are not misapprehensions. This is what Ofsted understands by appropriate sequencing in the curriculum.’
So, then, though most of us as teachers and school leaders recognise the importance of a high-quality and ambitious grammar curriculum, now is the time to revisit its design.
Simon Kidwell has worked as a headteacher and school principal for 17 years, and has led three successful primary schools to achieve rapid and sustained improvement.