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A Broken System Change Needed

Children’s writing skills harmed by primary curriculum

Despite widespread opposition – from leading authors, from experts and even from the academics behind the curriculum and tests – primary school children are still being made to do a curriculum weighty in grammatical terminology and SPAG tests

turns the clock back half a century

David Crystal

It has become almost a joke, shared around social media – the bizarre world of SPAG and English language of the classroom. A world where seven and eight-year-olds have to care about, and use, fronted adverbials. Not that fronted adverbials aren’t a real thing. It is entirely how Yoda speaks for one, how fairy stories begin and an occasionally useful structure for emphasis – but the importance placed on children knowing about them is baffling.

It’s a world where children are encouraged not to use words such as ‘and’ ‘so’ ‘said’ ’big’ ‘good’ ‘small’ and instead to use words such as ‘additionally’ ‘therefore’ ‘exclaimed’ ‘ginormous’ ‘wonderful’ resulting in comically bad prose. The exact opposite, in fact, of how creative writing is taught at higher levels where students are encouraged to write simply and directly, stripping out all the unnecessary words, adjectives, adverbs. To communicate an idea, a feeling. To be honest, raw.

Children are not receptacles or cars or machines. They are humans with views of what they are learning and how they feel.

MIchael Rosen

A group of 35 acclaimed authors wrote to the Education Secretary in 2015 to highlight the damage being done by the primary curriculum. The way children were being encouraged to write had “quite adverse effects on their writing skills”, resulting in language that was “too elaborate, flowery and over-complex”.

“We risk producing a generation of children who believe that a sentence such as ‘I bounded excitedly from my cramped wooden seat and flung my arm gracefully up like a bird soaring into the sky’ is always better than ‘I stood and put my hand up’.”

The negative effect impacts at secondary and at university level. Students, presuming they haven’t just decided that they hate writing and that they give up, are having to relearn everything they thought they know about writing.

A leading expert in English language, David Crystal, spoke out against the SPAG tests and the way language is currently taught, describing the focus on the mechanics of language as turning “the clock back half a century”.

All four of the expert panel behind the curriculum have expressed deep reservations about it. In 2017 Richard Hudson, the academic responsible for much of the curriculum, including the hated fronted adverbials, said that the process of developing it was “chaotic”. He admitted that the panel of four had little experience in primary and thought that their responsibilities were going to be in developing the secondary curriculum, but were advised in one of their four meetings that this was not the case.

A Conservative-led Commons education select committee also criticised the test for focusing too much on technical aspects of writing and not on creativity.

Author Michael Rosen – yet another of the many, many voices speaking out against the curriculum and tests – said that he had been contacted about young children shaking and crying about the tests. Education should not be as if it were about stuffing facts into inanimate objects. “Children are not receptacles or cars or machines. They are humans with views of what they are learning and how they feel.”

An expert described the 2018 SPAG test as “dreadful” saying he had hurled it across the room at one point. He did, however, notice a slight improvement in the reduction of the importance fronted adverbials occupied.

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