One SPAG fits all
– Why I think even I know more than Michael Gove
I believe I’m a good people-watcher: one of the best. I’m the first to admit my failings – of which there are many, and I rarely boast, because I really am pretty unfocussed and inconsistent when it comes to absolutely everything else in life, but I do have one thing that I think I’m good at and that is observing my fellow humans. In fact, I am so busy taking in people’s behaviours and mentally recording and reorganising them that I’m pretty socially inept. And I can’t even write or read in a public place because I’m “on the job” of people-watching. (Oh – if only that were a job!). I may not be talking to you regularly, but I promise I am thinking about you all the time!!
I believe our opinions are mainly the result of our experience. But, if our experience is limited only to ourselves and not to observing others then it is very limited indeed. Our experience of our own life, plus what we have witnessed is our own unrecorded (okay, so maybe you’ve recorded yours) scientific study. What we have seen and thought about matters a great deal. I often think it matters more than tables of statistics. But only if it attempts to reach widely.
Take for example my recent arguments with my mother about grammar schools. She was a very bright, capable student, whose future was saved (for want of a better word) by the presence of grammar schools. She passed the 11 Plus, she went onto grammar school; because of her academic abilities she avoided being taken out of school and put into domestic service and was therefore able to go to university, get a degree, do teacher training, meet my dad, and live in a far less impoverished background than she had been destined for had there not been the option of grammar schools. She sees how that system worked for her and could work for other poor, but bright, kids. She thinks the reintroduction of grammar schools would provide that academic option, if you like, for less-advantaged kids in today’s society.
Okay. Stop. But what about all the kids it didn’t and wouldn’t work for? I agree with my mother on most things these days but her argument for grammar schools is based purely on her own experience. That’s not enough. It ignores – even writes off perhaps – all those intelligent kids who are not good at sitting tests, who are not great spellers, even those who deliberately fail because they want to stay with their friends. And it suggests that there are two types of people, and the ones that don’t pass the test are somehow less worthy.
Michael Gove likes where he is today (please don’t think I am in any way comparing him with my wonderful mother though). He likes who he is. He likes his memories of his childhood education and what it gave to him. He thinks he is a success, his education was a success and therefore his experiences should be rolled out across the country.
He and others seem to see people in two camps: those who are academic and those who are not. So simple. Isn’t that just the best and simplest way of looking at things? Hoorah for simplistic thinking!
So. We put everyone through academic tests: If you do well in them, you are academic; if you don’t, you have the option to work harder and try to fit this made up definition of “academic”, or you can resign yourself to the fact that you are not academic and therefore you belong to the pile which, for the purposes of this blog post, I will label “manual worker”. You – the less-academic folk who couldn’t pass the specific tests will feel uncomfortable at school; you will wait impatiently for it all to be over so you can apply to be an apprentice with the hope of being a “manual worker”.
You – the more-academic, who, for the purposes of this blog post , I will call “high achievers” and who could fit the narrow definition of academic, will feel like a success throughout school. You will spend the next few years, studying, knowing you can avoid “manual work” and are perhaps destined for top, managerial, advisory jobs. You are more likely to be well-paid and well-respected. And if you’re not already in them, you can join the top social classes.
That’s everyone sorted. Good and tidy.
Well done Mr Gove.
Bring on the tests!
Schooling over the years has been subject – to a greater and lesser degree – to heavy streaming. Gather up the tests and pop each child into a group according to his or her results. Now I found school easy in the earlier years. This was mainly because it involved putting lots of words and numbers on pieces of paper. I was good at that. I loved writing. My brain was designed for that. I got streamed into top sets, and although I was never the very cleverest in school, I was always up there in the classes with the children perceived to be the cleverest. This made me assume that the “others” in lower groups were less clever than me. And not just less clever: some of them were downright thick. They had to be: they couldn’t write or spell well. “Manual workers”, right?
So I grew up, not only with a distorted opinion of what made people fit the clever and not so clever categories, I also grew up with an opinion that people who worked in ordinary or “manual” jobs were somehow mentally inept. I am very happy to tell you that I don’t think like that anymore.
The trouble is, many people still do.
If you really watch people and listen to them you can see how some amazingly bright people have overcome the stigma of the “squeeze yourself through a pinhole”-style academic testing and have proved their intelligence in other ways. Years later I came across people who I had been at school with – and had had nothing to do with at school – and found them to be incredibly intelligent and interesting despite being in the lower academic groups. I also noticed how some people who were very good at squeezing through the pinhole never quite got over their snobbery of thinking they were somehow superior. Now that’s not very clever, is it?
In my teens and early twenties, I became a “manual worker” for a few years. I didn’t continue or use my education in any way. I worked as a barmaid, as a waitress, as an unpaid housewife and mother (that unpaid stuff is the hardest). I finally started teaching piano for a while and began to observe the different ways children learn. Some of the brightest, most interesting kids, I noticed, simply cannot sit still and listen. And sometimes their handwriting and spelling is appalling. Interesting. Very interesting. I had to redesign my ideas about how you should teach music – and in particular music theory.
I hope he won’t mind me mentioning this, but my husband cannot spell well. He doesn’t remember grammar rules and he hates writing. He is also embarrassed by his own handwriting and he thought for years that he wasn’t very clever. He is actually very clever.
Our first child came along 18 years ago and since then I have been observing my own children not just other people’s. Child number one fitted the pinhole really well. She could have glided painlessly through the SPAG tests – and would even have enjoyed them. She reminds me of my father: an almost photographic memory, a fast reader, an accurate speller. A bit of a pedant, if I’m honest. She’s what you would call bright, academic, clever, intelligent, high-achiever, all of those things associated with getting through tests successfully. The way her brain is arranged just happens to suit the narrow definitions.
But when you sit and talk with any of my children there is nothing to say that she is more intelligent or insightful than the others.
Our second and third children are not pinhole-shaped. Their brains are arranged differently from their older sibling. They struggle a little with spelling and grammar, and writing neatly. They are drawn to different areas of education and, if it were available today, I’m not 100% sure they would pass the 11 plus. Maybe they would. I don’t know. I don’t see them as less intelligent than their sister. In fact, I know they are not less intelligent. But if they were repeatedly rated on their ability to write and spell well I feel sure they would begin to feel less intelligent.
Unless he is stopped, Michael Gove will be testing our 8-year-old on her spelling and grammar in 2 years’ time.
I don’t want him to.
She’s intelligent, inquisitive, interested and loves reading and writing stories. I don’t want anyone pointing out their made up faults and threatening her faith in herself. Through her reading and writing she is finding out why it’s important to make yourself understood and recently she has worked on her handwriting on her own in her room for her own reasons.
I tweeted about this on Twitter this morning. It’s difficult to make a point in tweets, so I’ll be careful what I say, but a couple of people joined in and one point made was that if spelling/grammar isn’t taught in schools then it makes life difficult at university. I agree that any university professor’s life must be made very difficult by under-prepared students, but teaching based on tests prepares none but a very few for anything -especially at a very young age. It’s not fun, it doesn’t provide a reason for learning according to a young person’s logic, it’s time-consuming, and it’s demeaning for those who don’t fit. For those who find spelling and grammar a slower process, the emphasis must be on content. It must be on content for all of us, surely? Spelling is a part of the education process, sure, but there must be a line drawn on how much it’s allowed to take over a child’s life.
Someone else pointed out that once children had “got over” the tests they could then reap the benefits of what they had taught them. My concern is that the very testing itself may not be a problem getting over. It may be the importance placed on them. It’s a little young to be dealing with issues of failure. Show them the words, show them how to use them, why make them sit tests? Make words fun instead. Make them mean something. We can’t have people growing up being afraid of the written word. It’s tragic.