Gibb’s Gaff Will ‘Always’ Be Telling

What did yesterday’s media reporting add to the impact of the parental-led boycott of primary schools to protest against this year’s SATs? Not enough to make a difference, and not enough to advance the intelligent arguments.

I haven’t seen all of the coverage, but in summary both TV and newspapers noted that whilst parents up and down the country did boycott, the numbers were quite small. This is hardly surprising. Most parents work. Most parents probably find such a boycott/protesting quite anathema to their experience. But enough did take their children out of school for ‘fun learning’ to make the media take note and this was the point: to raise awareness.

The BBC on its own is a good example of the variable quality of coverage: on its lunchtime Politics Show, there was an interview with parents whose children were having a day of such fun learning away from their classrooms, and one parent interviewed was exceptionally articulate in outlining the objections; on its BBC News at Six they chose the following example of an English question to represent the nature of the ‘demanding’ tests – write the words I am using an apostrophe.

One further BBC interview that was telling in a specific and sinister way was that with a spokesperson for The Campaign for Real Education. She trotted out the same mantra of the need to teach the ‘basics’ but then added that the tests had to exist to make sure that teachers were indeed carrying out this teaching.

For those of us opposed to the tests, and neutrals who enjoy a gaff, Nick Gibb made the now infamous mistake of getting a grammar question wrong in his radio interview for World at One, not understanding the difference between a preposition and a subordinating conjunction. This ironic double whammy proved: first, the sham of the Schools Minister insisting on the need to know grammar [though testing] when he so clearly doesn’t; and second, how useless and unnecessary such grammatical knowledge is for someone clearly still educated and articulate.

But the Gibb gaff is no more than this: instructive of how arrogance and ignorance will bite you on the butt, given the chance, but the wound will heal as the tests proceed.

The most obvious confirmation of the obvious from yesterday’s action is the need for the teaching profession to narrow and focus its attention on the central problem: the English SATs, especially the Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling test [GPS or SPaG as formally known, and still called so at GCSE].

In arguing against SATs, there are other relevant and important issues regarding stress for pupils, teachers and parents; the chaotic implementation of the SATs this year; the persistent amendments and alterations to these, and, of course, the actual purpose of the tests as a measurement of teachers and schools rather than pupil progress: admittedly, a political argument.

But it isn’t evident that there is a consensus, let alone a noticeable number, on any of the above or opposition to maths/numeracy tests, nor even the spelling only part of the SPaG – apart, that is, from the debacle this year of their having been available online weeks if not months prior to being set as unseen tests.

The clear problem is with the grammar/punctuation element of the SPaG, and so much of the trenchant chronicling of and argument about their abject uselessness as well as unreliability has come from teachers and grammarians, but most specifically and widely by Michael Rosen. His has provided a consistently damning exposé of the error and unreliability of the tests as presented, and he has a public and professional reach which is significant, especially judging by the responses to this on social media from teachers and parents. I like others on the periphery have added our own arguments, mine often satirical but no less critical, yet these are largely unheard voices. That is very much the problem: we need as a teaching profession, along with those writers who have consistently argued against these specific SATs, like Philip Pulman et al, to prevent dissipating the argument by moving away from seeking a blanket ban and concentrating instead on the blatantly unsound and unnecessary SPaG.

Nick Gibb’s gaff, as fleetingly telling as it was, will always be able to provide a template for proving the nonsense at Key Stages 1 and 2 [and beyond really….] of the grammar teaching and testing.

It is still worth listening to:

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