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Levelling down

By prizing consistency over creativity, argues Susan Gregory, school assessments risk stifling children - especially boys

Recently I was talking about the Literacy Hour, the government initiative to raise standards in primary schools, with 14-year old students. 'My brother's had to sign a contract', said one boy, 'saying he'll behave himself while he's doing it. He's nine!'.

'What do you think about that?' I asked. 'Not a lot', said Paul. 'It's natural for kids to be naughty some of the time.' Girls spoke up in agreement. 'School wouldn't be any fun if kids were never naughty.'

Contracts of unconditional good behaviour are licences for teachers to be boring. And bad behaviour in the very young might be a legitimate form of direct action: 'If you deliver worthy, government-prescribed Literacy Hours from reception class to year six, we shall rebel.' This is not to say that Literacy Hours necessarily are boring - just that children are natural subversives.

I start by mentioning Literacy Hour because, at worst, it encourages children to jump through hoops for five hours a week. This is so that, come the year 2002, if we're on line with government targets, 80 per cent of our 11-year olds can jump through the hoop marked Key Stage Two English SATs and emerge the other side triumphantly labelled Level Four. And for what?

The very word 'level' I have always considered an educational anathema. It suggests that we can take a sample, at any time, of any age group in our society and 'level' it. I don't believe this for one moment. I don't believe that this is how human beings are, by nature. We are all, it seems to me, a fever chart of peaks and sloughs. And if we try to measure ourselves in 'levels' we are demanding a consistency of performance that is alien to our very nature.

If we demand this consistency determinedly enough, we shall end up with those who are capable of delivering consistently somehow triumphing educationally. I see this leading almost inevitably to a blander, less excitable and exciting performance being preferred to one that is erratic, but exceptional. The consequence of this can be to reward mediocrity, as long as it is consistently mediocre, while ignoring bursts of great creativity. This is already happening.

The performance of students according to the recent Key Stage Three English SATs results made my eyebrows shoot up, not for the first time. Boys in particular, whom our school had rated for the cogency and accuracy of their writing, were 'coming out' as much as two 'levels' below what they had been perceived as reaching through continuous assessment. The same can be said of some girls.

When I looked closely at such students' papers, two things struck me. Their appreciation of sharp writing in others was outstanding. They were stylistically adept in their own free writing. Their chosen subject matter did incline to the lurid - the death by heart attack of an elderly widow terrorised, unwittingly, by her own cat; the revenge meted out on one friend by another after a climbing accident. These stories are reminiscent of the work of Stephen King and James Herbert, and possibly reflect the boys' preferred reading.

Stephen King is well known for his irritation at being typecast as a non-serious writer solely on the grounds of his choosing to write horror. I suspect that many of our students, particularly boys, are being typecast in just the same way.

I do not want to denigrate the performance of the girls who, according to the SATs results, far outstripped these boys. At their very best they were stylistically inventive, stunning, shocking. But a number of the more highly rated performances smacked of the 'little princess' syndrome to me. There was something disturbingly precious about them. Consistent, yes. Almost perfectly accurate in spelling and punctuation, yes. But faintly cloying, yes.

There was something louche about them. They covered a lot of paper, but not an awful lot was being said. At their worst they were self-regarding, arch and coy. In a culture that encourages narcissism in the young, particularly the female young, this is hardly surprising. But we don't have to perpetuate this culture forever, and a sure way of doing so is to give it official status via our testing system.

When I wrote to the body with overall responsibility for Key Stage Three English SATs, it was acknowledged that the position for boys in particular is 'far from straightforward'. The unevenness of their performance was conceded, as was the fact that they scored particularly highly on certain kinds of questions. Why, then, is their 'best performance' not being given the recognition it deserves?

When we think of those established writers who many consider 'the greats', is it the consistency of their performance that awes us? Where do we find that consistency? I just don't see it. Time seems to render the duff patches of the famous strangely inconspicuous. But for many of our young male students and many misjudged females, too, disheartened and demoralised by a system of national assessment that purports to serve us all, time is not on their side.

If their creative thrust goes comparatively unrecognised and unappreciated, particularly by those bodies who officially assess them and in whom they, most pitifully, place so much trust, they are liable to quit thrusting in disgust. And as for 'levels', we all know what Shakespeare implied about them. 'Comparisons are odorous!' Quite simply, they stink.

Reproduced from LM issue 117, February 1999

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