In normal times, my cheery “So, how was school?” rarely receives more than a grunted “OK.” But homeschooling is revealing what my children actually do all day. And the discovery has come as a shock.
My 11-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter go to a perfectly decent state primary, which has valiantly provided worksheets week by week throughout our successive lockdowns. But I read them with incredulity, hilarity—and horror.
My daughter is told to improve her writing using “PUGS (Punctuation, Up-levelling, Grammar and Spelling).” (“Up-levelling,” I gather, means “improving.”) Meanwhile, she is left finding comprehension incomprehensible: “Use evidence from the text to justify your thinking!”—the exclamation mark failing to animate the task, which involves describing the appearance and personality of protagonists; or spotting expanded noun phrases. (I kid you not.)
Suspicious, I took out their old exercise books, which I’d shamefully only ever briefly glanced at in the holidays. At the top of each page is an “LI,” which, they informed me after some racking of brains, stands for “learning intention.” (Other schools use “learning objectives” or “WALT”—We Are Learning To…). When she was six and seven, my daughter was in the habit of writing her name followed by a row of hearts and kisses. Yet under that charming heading, she’d been made to scrawl such heart-sinking formulas as “LI: to practise inference skills”; “LI: to interpret a pictogram”; “LI: to work systematically to solve a problem”; and “LI: to identify features of a non-chronological report.”
Underneath the “LI” they have to paste in a checklist of “success criteria”: “I can add extra information to my sentence using a subordinate conjunction”; “I can use time adverbials”; “I can include technical vocabulary.” It was as if I’d booked a babysitter but a marketing manager had turned up instead.
The maths worksheets seemed more cogent, but the language was just as weirdly abstract—all tell, no show. “LI: to add using expanded column method”; “LI: to use inverse relationships to solve problems”; “Challenge: how many different division facts will you be able to write for the following statements? Explain your answer.” The wording reminded me of a poorly translated instruction manual.
When Michael Gove instituted a new national curriculum in 2014, the highly technical grammar foisted on primary pupils attracted some consternation (the secondary grammar curriculum is tiny by comparison). Six- and seven-year-olds are now expected to know prepositions, conjunctions and subordinate clauses; eight- and nine-year-olds, noun phrases expanded by the addition of modifying adjectives, preposition phrases, fronted adverbials and determiners; nine- and 10-year-olds, modal verbs and relative pronoun cohesion. I don’t even know what some of these terms mean, and I’ve got a PhD in English.
But there is a bigger problem with our education system, and it is manifest not just in the grammar, but in its entire lexicon. The dismal ingredients listed in the national curriculum are ending up, raw and unprocessed, on my children’s plates. The teachers—who are expected to serve up this extraordinarily detailed menu—have no time to properly prepare it. When an outsider like me suddenly sees what is going on, the obvious question is: why are they spending precious learning time deciphering abstruse terminology that is clearly age-inappropriate, joyless and fundamentally pointless?
The first national curriculum for England and Wales was legislated for by Margaret Thatcher’s education secretary Kenneth Baker in 1988. It began being phased in the following year. Designed to standardise local variation, it was initially stuffed with knowledge but slimmed down by Ron Dearing’s 1994 review. In 2008, after New Labour’s early fixation on the three Rs, Gordon Brown’s government eventually attempted to shift the emphasis towards “life skills,” but this was reversed when the Coalition initiated its own reforms in 2010.
I am something of an educational conservative, and found myself in agreement with Gove’s belief, shaped by his own education at an Aberdeen private school, that children should acquire a rigorous grounding in “literary canons, mathematical proofs, scientific laws, musical exercises and artistic traditions.” In a 2013 speech, Gove surprised many by quoting the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci and his defence of traditional education against Mussolini’s knowledge-stripping reforms: “Previously pupils at least acquired a certain baggage of concrete facts,” Gramsci wrote. “Now there will no longer be any baggage to put in order.”
Gove also cited the American academic ED Hirsch, who argues that educational conservatism is in reality progressive, as it is “the only means whereby children from disadvantaged homes can secure the knowledge and skills that will enable them to improve their condition.” These children must “master the traditional culture in order to command its rhetoric,” and thereby advance in life. In my view, Gove correctly argued that dethroning the teacher as an authority figure and placing the child alongside them “on the same footing as co-creators of learning” actually ends up reinforcing broader social hierarchies—although his subsequent disparagement of experts means he gets 0 out of 10 for consistency.
Indeed, the whole Govian “reform” project was deeply contradictory: he undermined his own curriculum by allowing academies and free schools to depart from it. Even where it has been stuck to, the “knowledge-based” curriculum has failed on its own terms—why else do my kids stare blankly at an atlas? They are asked to write about topical issues like plastic pollution without understanding the composition of either plastic or the ocean—or even what a fish is.
Part of the problem is that “knowledge” has been incorrectly defined as “grammatical concepts.” Children’s author Frank Cottrell-Boyce tells me he has done readings in primary schools where the teacher says afterwards: “Now class, let’s identify the wow words, connectives and metaphors that Frank is using here.” This is not the fault of teachers: “I see amazing work all the time,” he says, “but it’s in the teeth of what they’re asked to do—they’re having to gouge moments out of the day and twist the curriculum to be able to do it.”
Cottrell-Boyce believes the value of listening to stories is being missed. “It’s a strange thing for a writer to say,” he tells me, “but I think we really overvalue writing. A lot of the writing that’s done in the classroom is to create some physical entity that can be assessed. It has no intrinsic value apart from the testing—and kids know that.”
Testing leads to everything being “gamed,” he tells me. “Kids are being urged to expand their sentences and add adjectives that their story doesn’t need because they gain points for it; so at some level, the whole process is becoming transactional. And the kids know there’s bad faith in that,” because it’s not really about them. Schools are ranked by SATs performance: “So at the core, we’re teaching cynicism over pleasure. Pleasure is regarded as suspect, to do with fun and distraction—but I think of pleasure as a really profound form of concentration. You will only do something well if you are taking pleasure in it.”
Formal grammar teaching is defended as a remedy for those who do not grow up around books. But Cottrell-Boyce points instead to the “huge inequality” between “kids who experience a book on their mum’s knee or being read to in bed, and kids whose first encounter with a book is decoding this terrifying puzzle on a desk. It’s very hard to get over that hurdle.”
“Why are our children spending time deciphering abstruse terminology that is clearly age-inappropriate, joyless and fundamentally pointless?”
All four academics who advised on the literacy curriculum have since criticised the process as chaotic and rushed. One was Debra Myhill, director of the Centre for Research in Writing at the University of Exeter. “The curriculum as it stands doesn’t necessarily reflect what we recommended,” she tells me. “Our advice was made to fit Conservative ideology”—though she adds that other parties would also interfere, a reason why most countries keep politicians out of it.
Myhill questions the degree to which knowing grammar improves writing. “Some naming of parts gives you a vocabulary to use between you and the teacher, but if that is actually confusing you and getting in the way of your learning, then actually it’s not serving any good purpose.”
There is technical language in all subjects, but it is not the case that grammar is to writing what the periodic table is to chemistry. As linguists Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker have shown, children deploy grammar instinctively; they don’t use it as building blocks to construct sentences. They can write “I went to the park and played with my friend” without knowing they’re using a conjunction. Earlier this month, the writer and teacher Kate Clanchy tweeted reassurance to homeschooling parents struggling with fronted adverbials: “Grammar is not ‘the basics’ of language,” she wrote: “it’s the description of how it works.” Even if there could be some application for it as part of language learning or literary criticism somewhere down the road, it is surely consuming disproportionate amounts of time in the primary school classroom.
Clanchy was writing in tribute to her late mother, Joan Clanchy, herself a headteacher and an adviser on the curriculum, until she resigned in 2011 in protest at emerging literacy plans. “It’s as though the driving test just involved doing a three-point turn without taking the driver out in traffic,” Joan commented at the time. “The interest, enjoyment and excitement will go.” Michael Rosen, another prominent critic of grammar teaching divorced from context and function, argues that writing is best learned through “imitation, parody and invention.”
The 2011 curriculum review was led by Tim Oates, an expert in assessment policy and long-term government adviser on curriculums and qualifications. He acknowledges it was done “at speed,” but insists it is “really well grounded in solid international evidence on high-performing education systems.” The results, he says, speak for themselves. According to PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment (itself controversial for its reliance on quantitative testing), “standards have improved in mathematics, and we’ve held steady in reading literacy,” Oates tells me; not exactly a ringing endorsement for all the grammar, but he points out that other countries’ performance has deteriorated.
One of those countries is Finland, often hailed as a paragon of holistic, child-centred education. “There’s a lot of nonsense talked about Finland,” Oates says: its impressive results should be seen in the context of historically high literacy levels in the culture at large, which are now in decline.
Is the narrow focus on grammar and perhaps maths at the expense of basic science, geography and history—let alone music and the arts? Oates acknowledges that “we’ve remained somewhat moribund in science,” for example, but thinks that keeping the initial focus on numeracy and literacy is “sensible. Resources are limited, and we don’t want to burden schools with innovations everywhere.”
One of the curriculum’s guiding principles, Oates says, is making sure children understand each aspect before they progress to the next. So what about the impenetrable vocab? “If you’re talking about ‘language about language’ being acquired mechanistically and superficially without understanding,” he says, “I know that’s occurring in reading and writing, and I don’t support it”—damning words from the man behind the original blueprint.
“There is a lot of content in those Year 5 and Year 6 annexes to English” (for nine- to 11-year-olds), he admits, but adds that “the testing has been, as it were, toned down a bit after the first two years’ experience.” Oates thinks it would be “prudent” to review those annexes. But he is not in favour of revamping the entire curriculum; instead, he’d like to see it implemented better through teacher training and support.
For teachers, however, the issue is not just the curriculum but the entire regime of tests and inspections. “Testing drives teaching,” Myhill tells me. “It is possible to abide completely by what the curriculum is asking while teaching it in a meaningful way, but that takes confidence.” Similarly, while LIs, LOs and WALT originate in the pedagogical principle of conscious learning, “they’ve become redundant, fossilised, formulaic procedures”—in part because they plug so neatly into the evidential framework. “There are a million more appropriate and imaginative ways,” she says.
According to the curriculum’s statement of aims, the “language about language” is “not intended to constrain or restrict teachers’ creativity, but simply to provide the structure on which they can construct exciting lessons.” But over-stretched teachers inevitably stick to the script to avoid leaving boxes unticked.
Carrie Derrick is a Year 5 teacher in Bristol. “They can say all they like about parts of the curriculum being non-statutory, but they may as well be,” she tells me. “Understandably, management wants the best for its school, so if Ofsted asks about whether an aspect of the curriculum is being taught, you teach it.”
Derrick works at an inner-city school with a challenging intake. “Year 6 are essentially cheating,” she says, “getting children to copy pretty much what the teachers write throughout the year for ‘evidence for writing’ [an externally moderated teacher assessment]; and actually every school is doing it that I’ve ever worked in, because everyone is so scared of the bad inspection that will follow a bad SATs result—the fear that you could go into special measures, or be [forcibly] ‘academised.’”
Testing—SATs, but also GCSEs—also explains why so few academies and free schools (or independents for that matter) grab the chance to jettison the jargon. In fact, academy chains are replete with dispiriting acronyms: from DEAR (drop everything and read) to SLANT (Sit up straight, Lean your body towards the speaker, Ask and answer questions, Nod your head “yes” and “no,” Track the speaker with your eyes).
The need for schools, teachers and pupils to make it through the gauntlet of tests means the terminology travels largely undigested through the system: the Year 6 spelling, punctuation and grammar test—referred to by the unlovely term SPaG—has its 11-year-old victims identify “modal verbs,” “determiners” and “co-ordinating conjunctions.”
Denied the chance to operate as autonomous professionals, teachers become hopelessly reliant on an industry that has sprung up to deliver the diktats. Twinkl is the most common provider; its corporate logo adorns my kids’ worksheets. “Help your Year 2 students to understand that addition is commutative using our range of age-appropriate maths activities and worksheets that have been designed specifically to meet the 2014 national curriculum aim,” its website states. Derrick says she’d like to make her own materials that reflect her own character, “but there just isn’t the time.”
I did a double take when I read Ofsted’s chief inspector Amanda Spielman’s criticism of teaching to the test. “We all have to ask ourselves,” she wrote in a 2018 review, “how we have created a situation where second-guessing the test can trump the pursuit of real, deep knowledge and understanding.” If my kids’ tribulations are anything to go by, not much has changed.
If children are only “parroting” knowledge, Oates tells me, “then the constellation of drivers and incentives in the system have not been correctly aligned.” Oates struck me as sensible and humane, but I couldn’t help notice his own use of jargon.
He still believes in testing. In fact, “we need far more assessment, but of a different kind and for a different purpose”: tests that “don’t hold schools to account, but are used to gain insight into what’s going on,” and especially to “identify pupils who are in need of support”—something many teachers would argue is their rightful domain.
“It’s a very long time in this country since we have had real discussions about what we want children to learn and to what purpose,” former adviser Debra Myhill tells me. She would like to see a rethink across the board, not just in literacy. “It used to be a strong field of research in the sixties and seventies. Since 1988, we’ve had curriculum after curriculum, but the design has been shaped by political ideology rather than discussions about what we want education to be for. It is a choice: we as a country decide what we think is important.”
“If I had a magic wand I would reinvent the whole thing,” teacher Carrie Derrick tells me. “I’d give teachers room to be creative, and actually do things that children like doing, and be led more by them and their sheer love of learning, rather than the need to provide evidence. That is why I’m a teacher.” Pendulum swings in education policy sap energy. But we cannot in good faith persist with a system that converts children’s natural curiosity into bafflement, strategising just to “get through,” and ultimately disengagement.
Homeschool has been gruelling. Tactfully ignoring most of the worksheets, my kids and I have learned why limestone foams in vinegar and how a valley is formed, but also what happens to an alarm clock when it is thrown across a room. Explaining how to tell the time was harder than I’d expected.
But it has also revealed what is possible. I will send them back to the classroom with relief on 8th March—but also a heavy heart. School involves an accommodation with the state. It’s basically fine, you tell yourself as you wave them off, bags on backs. It could get even worse, however, if the pandemic produces a doubling down on standards and a rush to plug attainment gaps.
What, though, if things went the other way? If enough parents were to reject what teachers have bemoaned for years, now that they’ve seen it for themselves? If pressure built to the point where all the jargon had to be stripped out and meaningful knowledge added in; if all the futile documentation, testing, inspections and league tables were abandoned and teachers liberated to speak in their own words? That really would be a silver lining.
Eliane Glaser is the author of “Elitism: A Progressive Defence” (Biteback)