It’s Y6 writing moderation season (notice the correct use of the apostrophe) and I admit to the temptation to write at length about this technocratic jungle. Think Brexit negotiations are complicated? You should try assessing Y6 writing.
However, there are several very good articles out there that go into the need for change – Michael Tidd in the TES and Leading Learner’s blog amongst them. Additionally, I have already written a story (hopefully at greater depth) satirising the world of Orwellian writing moderation right here.
But away from the processes, guidance documents and extravagant bureaucracy, we risk forgetting one irrefutable fact.
The writing of pupils in primary schools is significantly better than it was ten or fifteen years ago.
I remember teaching a good class of Year 6s circa 2001 and being delighted to have a couple of Level 6s (remember them?). I was in awe of their talent. I recall being told by a secondary specialist that this was akin to a C or D grade in English language GCSE.
This is no longer an exception. Now, there are many more children writing at this level. Some primary schools are now churning out whole flocks of writers who give Jacqueline Wilson and Jeff Kinney a run for their money. Mature cursive script, near-perfect grammar and punctuation, humour, stylistic devices, etc etc. In fact, it’s not normal; it’s as if children have reached adulthood too early. I mean, two of my pupils wrote their own book this year. And self-published it!
This is a remarkable testament to the teachers in primary schools up and down the country. They have responded to the incremental ‘challenge’ within the system with stoicism and stamina. The extensive range of technological innovations have clearly helped, such as Pobble or Wattpad, as has vastly improved marking and feedback.
Sadly, it’s meant most of this same group of committed teachers absenting themselves from their normal family lives, and committing to dozens of hours of interminable pressure. This is unsustainable and it needs correcting; it is simply impossible to continue improving children’s writing at the same frenetic pace. And for what reason? Did Shakespeare gain all his skills from a successful ‘greater depth’ assessment?
In addition, this obsession has had a worrying effect on the rest of the curriculum. In the best schools, my suspicion is that teachers see writing as something which you do in all subjects. Here, teachers are skilled in teaching verb and tense agreement just as much in a science lesson as in the sacred English period (always in the morning of course). But other schools have prioritised the writing lessons, often twice a day, with a SPAG lesson thrown in for good measure. Children are drowned in a vat of ‘cold’ and ‘hot’ writes, Big Writes, collaborative writes, guided writes, all smeared with green and purple pens. Music, MFL and the humanities have suffered, amongst other curricular orphans.
So some perspective please.
I have narrowed our own expectations down to one phrase, one which is the aim for all our children; to be ‘a fluent and expressive writer’. If they miss a comma or a capital letter every once in a while, then so what. I just want them to be fluent and expressive, and for teachers to have the time to work on other equally important parts of the timetable.
And then for both, teachers and pupils alike, to enjoy the rest of a fun, unpredictable, and slightly crazy primary-school curriculum.