Will we see a leap in Writing attainment?

I’ve long been clear that I think that the current system of assessing writing at KS2 (and at KS1 for that matter) is so flawed as to be completely useless. The guidance on independence is so vague and open to interpretation and abuse, the framework so strictly applied (at least in theory), and moderation so ineffective at identifying any poor practice, that frankly you could make up your results by playing lottery numbers and nobody would be any the wiser.

One clear sign of its flaws last year was in the fact that having for years been the lowest-scoring area of attainment, and despite the new very stringent criteria which almost all teachers seem to dislike, somehow we ended up with more children achieving the expected standard in Writing than in any other subject area.

My fear now is that we will see that odd situation continue, as teachers get wise to the flaws in the framework and exploit them. I’m not arguing that teachers are cheating (although I’m sure some are), but rather that the system is so hopelessly constructed that the best a teacher can do for their pupils is to teach to the framework and ensure that every opportunity is provided for children to show the few skills required to reach the standard. There is no merit now in focusing on high quality writing; only in meeting the criteria. Results will rise, with no corresponding increase in the quality of writing needed.

For that reason, I suspect that we will likely see a substantial increase in the number of schools having more pupils reaching the expected standard. At Greater Depth level I suspect the picture will be more varied as different LAs give contradictory messages about how easy is should be to achieve, and different moderators appear to apply different expectations.

In an effort to get a sense of the direction of travel, I asked teachers  – via social media –  to share their writing data for last year, and their intended judgements for this year. Now, perhaps unsurprisingly, more teachers from schools with lower attainment last year have shared their data, so along with all the usual caveats of what a small sample this is, it’s worth noting that it’s certainly not representative. But it might be indicative.

Over 250 responses were given, of which just over 10 had to be ignored (because it seems that some teachers can’t grasp percentages, or can’t read questions!). Of the 240 responses used, the average figure for 2016 was 71% achieving EXS and 11% achieving GDS. Both of these figures are lower than last year’s national figures (74% / 15%) – which themselves seemed quite high, considering that just 5 years before, a similar percentage had managed to reach the old (apparently easier) Level 4 standard. Consequently, we might reasonably expect a greater increase in these schools results in 2017 – as the lower-attaining schools strive to get closer to last year’s averages.

Nevertheless, it does appear that the rise could be quite substantial. Across the group as a whole, the percentage of pupils achieving the expected standard rose by 4 percentage points (to just above last year’s national average), with the percentage achieving greater depth rising by a very similar amount (again, to just above last year’s national average).

We might expect this tendency towards the mean, and certainly that seems evident. Among those schools who fell short of the 74% last year, the median increase in percentage achieving expected was 8 percentage points; by contrast, for those who exceeded the 74% figure last year, the median change was a fall of 1 percentage point.

Now again, let me emphasise the caveats. This isn’t a representative sample at all – just a self-selecting group. And maybe if you’re in a school which did poorly last year and has pulled out all the stops this year, you’d be more likely to have responded, so it’s perfectly possible that this overestimates the national increase.

But equally, it’s possible that we’ll see an increase in teacher assessment scores which outstrips the increases in tested subjects – even though it’s already starting from a higher (some might say inflated) base.

I’m making a stab in the dark and predicting that we might see the proportion of children – nationally – reaching the Expected Standard in Writing reach 79% this year. Which is surely bonkers?


9 thoughts on “Will we see a leap in Writing attainment?

  1. Jo Byrd 19 June 2017 at 6:50 am Reply

    It goes something like this: teach, children write; mark, children ‘up level’ at best this means children edit and improve their own work on recommendations of teache, at worst, they copy their teacher’s corrections; mark, write final draft neatly in books to be presented for assessment and moderation.

    • mrhackney 19 June 2017 at 9:41 pm Reply

      I am a Year 6 teacher. My writing standards were moderated by external moderators. The process I feel was deeply flawed. At no time was the impact of the writing upon the reader assessed. Instead, there was an over whelming focus on technical accuracy with no balance to composition and effect. Surely the Grammar, Spelling and Punctuation test is used to monitor standards in this area and surely we should be assessing writing for a purpose and audience? At GCSE we ask the question; can a child respond to a text? Can a child provide reasons for their decisions and viewpoints? Can a child use the ‘writer’s voice’ to persuade, argue and convince? The moderators used ‘secure fit’ to make decisions about the quality of writing based on children not being able to use a dash or hyphen and not seeing a semi-colon used properly. At one point we argued a child had used ‘warm-up’ (‘we had just finished the warm-up’) as a use of hyphen but was told this did not match the criteria. We argued it was good use of a hyphen so the moderator got her mobile from her pocket and used Google! She then told us that warm up is NEVER hyphenated. Not surprisingly when I checked Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries, rather than Google’s first match, I found the noun warm-up can be hyphenated. What a ridiculous process! We were then told, quite correctly, that children should not have success criteria heavily supporting the process but then the other moderator said some schools had a bank of hyphenated words on the wall which they could choose from. Some schools are therefore just jumping through hoops. They are playing a game rather than making our children into considered and thoughtful writers who can engage with an audience. We were not playing that game. How can standards be moderated when some schools are being subjected to this and others are not! Writing standards this year cannot be used to determine floor standards. I have a number of children who can compose a thoughtful and considered text based on the pros and cons of fox-hunting; children who can write an explanation of how the heart works using the passive voice and scientific vocabulary and children who can write diary entries showing empathy with characters from history. They have made excellent progress with their composition and yet, because we have not played the ‘technical accuracy’ game, they are now assessed as working below standard. I love this profession and have worked for nearly 30 years in primary schools but this current process does make me question what we are doing and how we are labelling our children and whether my energies should be channelled elsewhere. Am I alone?

  2. Mr B 19 June 2017 at 9:45 pm Reply

    Would love to see a ‘moderated’ v ‘non-moderated’ mean for EXS+ in KS2 and KS1.
    All those schools who went high last year and now get moderated this year! What a farce. Anyways, I’m off to up-level this. Should I use a modal verb? As for being passive, this article is being written by me (independently, of course!)

    • Catherine S 9 July 2017 at 12:05 pm Reply

      I was in year 6 last year and said exactly that. We were moderated and all our judgements were upheld by the moderator (apart from one that the DH wanted me to put in as GD- it clearly wasn’t and I didn’t want to, but felt pressured to. The moderator said it wasn’t GD.) If you know you aren’t being moderated then what is stopping anyone inflating their judgements. And I’m sorry I don’t mean to offend who did it properly.

  3. Thomas 19 June 2017 at 11:07 pm Reply

    In response to the negativity towards the assessment of writing, I do agree it is flawed and the process of moderation is overly prescriptive rendering it little more than a tick box activity. When the new expectations were released there were many problems. The main problem being that the drip drip drip of information from government to local authorities and subsequently from LAs on to schools took far too long. This resulted in Y6 teams teaching in the dark without a fixed idea of what an ‘expected’ piece of writing looked like or what elements of grammar or punctuation should be included. That was the state of play last year.

    Anyone who did not do their homework for this year by ensuring they were covering all the expectations in my opinion does not have a leg to stand on. If you are suggesting that it is impossible to create inspirational writing opportunities that have purpose, imagination and creativity as well as including a few hyphenated words and a variety of punctuation (demonstrating control and clarity) I sorely disagree with your view. It is a teacher’s job to understand the expectations and assessment procedures in place. It is then their job to be the creator of opportunities for their children to be inspired to write. It is a shame that we have moved away from ‘reader in the writer’ approach from an assessment point of view but does that mean that as teachers we should move away from it. I think it is totally plausible to keep the pedagogy behind purposeful and meaningful writing whilst boxing clever with what ingredients are included.

    The writing curriculum is looser than it has ever been (remember those written tests). We, as teacher’s, can have complete freedom to create our writing opportunities and empower our pupils’ voices through their writing because nobody is going to come in with an opinion of how that should be done. This is an amazing situation for a teacher to have. We have freedom to create writing opportunities however we want! FREEEEEEDOM. The flip side is we need to include a few silly things that someone thought would be a good idea sat around a meeting room up in Whitehall. If that is the payoff I am up for paying it.
    My question is how does the moderation of writing process which we all agree is little more than a tick box of ingredients speak to the national curriculum. That has never been made clear and I doubt it will. That is why there is confusion because the two do not communicate and as long as the bedrock of our planning and the moderators toolkit don’t talk how the hell are we all meant to agree on anything?

    • Michael Tidd 19 June 2017 at 11:25 pm Reply

      What an odd outlook on things.
      Your claim that it’s “plausible to keep the pedagogy behind purposeful and meaningful worrying whilst boxing clever with what ingredients are included” implies one of two things. Either the criteria are so simple that they have no place being used in assessment, or that, if they are challenging, some children should have to suffer such a restricted and unhelpful diet in order to achieve them regardless of the impact on other areas.
      Perhaps it’s very plausible in your school; the data clearly suggests that that isn’t true everywhere.
      Personally, I’m not happy with a system of national assessment which encourages the sort of gaming you seem to be okay with.

      • Thomas 20 June 2017 at 12:51 am Reply

        I thought it was more pragmatic than odd but maybe I am wearing rose tinted glasses to view my own ideas… I agree an assessment system should not encourage such a ‘gaming’ approach to assessment. In my view the criteria are ridiculous. The whole three ticks, on a moderators sheet, across the year for hyphens etc… is at best silly and worst dangerous to children’s experience of writing because it is so narrow. In my local authority (with what was left of the English team) we spent a lot of time discussing how to meet the expectations without compromising on a teacher’s pedagogy. Maybe this led me to believe that a more creative approach to writing is to be found in the current framework as there is less guidance and moderation on the elements that I deem to be the most important ingredients to a child’s writing.

        Out of the two interpretations you offer I definitely lean towards your first as I agree that the criteria are so specific that they render themselves useless in forming a picture of the child as writer. I would describe them as purely secretarial not ‘simple’ as the weight of the ticks on a moderators sheet fall under mainly punctuation targets. They should be a part of but not the whole assessment of writing. Your second option suggests that any teacher who is aware of the framework and plans for it will therefore ruthlessly enforce a restricted and unhelpful diet on a pupil who might struggle to reach those targets. I would hope that any teacher would protect their children from this situation. This is the greatest danger from the current approach to assessment of writing.

        Just to be clear I do not agree with the current system of national assessment in writing but that is how I have navigated it and at times negated it to meet my own expectations of what writing should be for primary aged children.

  4. Gill W 20 June 2017 at 5:00 pm Reply

    I have three year 6 children in my class whose writing is well-structured, includes all the expected punctuation (used correctly) and ticks all the boxes – with the exception of spelling. They’ve all been screened for dyslexia and have it in varying degrees. Why are we, here in the second year of this system, still having to discriminate against children who have this?

  5. JC 21 June 2017 at 10:22 pm Reply

    LA moderation: all moderators having had 1/2 day government training. Moderator 1: Yes, that is GDS; 5m later – Moderator 2: No, that is not GDS. How does this help? For your information, I believe, as a teacher for the last 31 years, that the child is a good writer and should be proud of what he can do. He is 7 years old.
    Please feel free to up-level and correct the above. I will not be offended, I simply enjoy writing.

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