“Okay, your time is up. Please put your pencils down and close your booklets. Well done Year 6 teachers; you have survived the SATS,” utters the invigilator matter-of-factly.
All the teachers breathe out a sigh – or whimper – of relief. As they grin around the classroom, giving thumbs up to their fellow comrades, a second invigilator enters the room, sidles up to the front of the class and whispers to their colleague. The main invigilator’s eyes widen in horror.
“Scratch that!” he calls out. It’s time for you to assess end of KS2 writing. The teachers all sit dumbstruck. A pencil drops to the floor and the lead shatters on the carpet – just like the hearts of each and every teacher in the room.
Okay, so maybe my feelings towards assessing writing aren’t quite that dramatic but after a wonderful post-SATS weekend of celebrating a friend’s 30th birthday and driving to Norwich for an impromptu BBQ, I feel as if I crashed down to reality on Monday with regards to my Year 6 pupils’ writing.
Each time I gaze upon the Interim Teacher Assessment Framework (ITAF) I’m genuinely baffled by what compelled the creators to include such mundane objectives. I studied English and Creative Writing at university and I’m fairly sure I never once had to use parenthesis. I certainly was never told it was compulsory to select verb forms for meaning and effect. Don’t even get me started on the obligation to use phrases for qualification and precision. But yet, we’re asking 11 year olds to include these features in their writing otherwise they can’t be deemed to be working at the expected standard for their age!?
Yes, I admit that I do probably use these techniques now from time to time but this is not because I was explicitly told to utilise them otherwise I wouldn’t reach an expected standard. I used them because I’d (perhaps even subconsciously) enjoyed the effects they had on me when reading other people’s writing.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m feeling fairly pleased with the progress my class have made in writing. My NQT mentor and one of the headteachers have been complimentary towards my children’s writing and I’m happy with the ‘writing journey’ each child has embarked on. To be honest though – this can’t just be my input. Achievement in writing stems from a rooted love of writing and reading, numerous opportunities to draft and edit and a clear understanding as to how the process of writing is best approached. I feel this is very difficult to develop in just two and a half terms so my pupils must thank their previous teachers!
The thing that grinds my gears, though, is the fact that when you whip out the ITAF and note that one child only has one piece of work that evidences use of hyphens, it almost feels as if they haven’t done good enough. The clarification videos, ironically, aren’t very clear and they certainly don’t clarify the number of times an objective should be evidenced for the child to be considered as accomplished in this area. Therefore, has this pupil achieved this target or not? Will they be prevented from reaching the expected standard because of this ‘oversight’?
It almost seems irrelevant that the pupil hooked me into their story within the first sentence and managed to ramp up the suspense through clever pacing. Stirring the emotions of the reader through the manipulation of sentence structures is hard to achieve and is arguably more effective when it comes naturally through the unconscious osmosis of reading – but who cares? It’s given equal weight to the notion of just dropping in a hyphen or a semi-colon here and there. In this case, the value of writing and utilising particular techniques has been grossly undermined.
The point I’m trying to get at is that I genuinely don’t feel that elements of the ITAF really reveal if a child is an accomplished writer or not. Some are just wallpaper objectives that make me breathe a sigh of relief and tick off a sheet when I see a child has included it. I really don’t feel the text would have benefitted any less from its absence.
Children’s writing should be assessed on how accurately they achieve their purpose, target their audience and assume the context in which it is written. Some of the ITAF objectives will certainly lend themselves to different aspects of this. You could argue that assessing writing in this way would be incredibly subjective, but surely it’s just as subjective to determine whether a child has ‘created atmosphere’? At least in this respect you don’t feel guilty for not including certain techniques in your writing that you wouldn’t even consider belong in that text if it weren’t for the haunting cry of the ITAF reminding you that you couldn’t tick that objective off.
I know I’ve just flagged up my qualms towards the writing assessments and I certainly don’t claim to have the answers whatsoever, but here are some stray thoughts I had whilst writing this that I’d like to see greater focus on in my own practice:
- Modelling how to appreciate the different effects that can be produced from experimenting with different grammatical structures ect. rather than compel children to use them in their writing to be deemed ‘expected standard’
- Allowing children to write and then comment on whether they thought the extract they’d produced was effective or not, giving reasons.
- Writing to authors and suggesting other ways in which they could have written a particular extract through the use of alternative writing techniques
- Asking authors how they go about the process of writing and comparing it to their experiences as writers themselves
How does assessing writing make you feel? Do you enjoy it or does it leave you with a bitter aftertaste?