I Love Grammar, But I Don't Love the SATs

25/04/2016 16:58

First up, a confession: I'm a grammar nerd. Grammar, as they say, is the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you're shit.

So you'd probably think I'd be delighted by the additional emphasis on formal grammar in the new primary SATs.

You'd think I'd be pleased that our nation's children are being taught to use apostrophes correctly. Believe me, I want everyone in the country to use apostrophes correctly. I really do.

But this is not the way to achieve that particular utopia.

Here's what's wrong with the new SATs:

1. There's no point learning a lot of formal grammar in primary school

The new SATs emphasise not only using grammar correctly, but also learning and reproducing technical language about grammar.

Children, especially young children, find abstract concepts difficult to grasp. I love an adverbial clause as much as the next grammar nerd, but it won't help my 10 year old's writing to know what an adverbial clause is.

2. The new SATs are way too difficult

The new SATs at KS1 and KS2 are much harder than in previous years. That means a large proportion of children will 'fail' these tests: they won't meet the 'expected standard'.

And even though the tests don't actually mean much, being labelled as 'not meeting the expected standard' is not great for anyone's confidence.

Maybe your child is one of the brighter ones who won't 'fail'. So, you reason, this doesn't matter to you. However...

3. These tests are not really about your child anyway

These tests are not about gauging - or even accelerating - your child's progress.

These tests are part of the Government's agenda for removing schools from local authority control and handing them - and their assets - to private Academy chains.

And while your child may not ultimately be judged on the outcome of this test, that doesn't mean the process doesn't affect them. Here's why:

4. You have to learn how to take these tests

The new SATs don't just test a child's subject knowledge, but also his or her ability to take the test.

To me, that's a badly designed test. It doesn't feel fair. And more importantly, if kids have to be taught how to take this test, there's less time to learn other stuff.

5. The pressure for results is deforming our education system

All this is affecting what our children get taught.

Increasingly, there's very little space in the school day for art, music, PE, geography, or history because the poor teacher is too panicked about results.

I want my kids to go to school to learn a wide spectrum of interesting stuff - academic stuff, yes, but also knowledge about the world, and about the arts and culture. I want them to be curious, challenged and stimulated.

I don't want them to go to school to learn how to sit a test and then proceed to endlessly practice how to sit a test.

Because while we're on the subject of the random things we're stuffing our kids' heads with...

6. Some of the content decisions are just plain weird

The KS2 sample grammar paper includes a question about the subjunctive.

Now bear with me if you're not a grammar nerd and you don't know about the subjunctive, but this seems like as good an illustration as any of just how bonkers this is.

As far back as 1986, grammar guru Michael Lewis was advising professional teachers of English as a Foreign Language not to bother teaching the subjunctive because it basically doesn't exist.

Perhaps that's not strictly true, but its use is so rare that foreign students might as well learn individual instances instead. Meanwhile, native English speakers may go through life never using the subjunctive, and if they need it they'll probably produce it without thinking about it or even knowing what it is.

Actually the subjunctive is fascinating to grammar nerds. Perhaps if that's what rocks your boat (and it certainly rocks mine) you could go do a degree in linguistics, or something. And when you come back, maybe you could explain to me how the hell any of this is the slightest bit useful to an 11 year old?

You see, there are two types of grammar nerds.

There are those who see grammar as a means to an end. They want to tell moving stories, construct convincing arguments, stir your soul with poetry, or simply make you laugh.

The other kind of grammar nerd doesn't love stories, and they're not too bothered about books or ideas either. But they know how to use the subjunctive, and they're convinced the nation's children should too.

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