In case you missed it, the exemplification of standards for writing at the end of KS1 and KS2 was published on the Standards and Testing Agency website earlier this month.

Brace yourself. It is not a happy reading experience.

What you get

Case studies are presented for each level: working towards, working at and working at greater depth in both key stages, with two examples at the expected standard for KS2. Each case study includes a handful of scripts, and each script is ticked off against each item in the performance descriptors.

Reaching the expected standard

As promised, the standard is set higher than it was in the past, and this has been achieved in two ways: firstly, by restricting what can be rewarded to a narrow range of grammatical skills and secondly, by insisting that pupils must demonstrate that they can use every one of the descriptors consistently in order to claim that they have reached expectations. Juggling strengths and weaknesses has gone.  This is a strictly can/can’t assessment.

Knock-on effects

The need to prove that each descriptor has been met has led to some bizarre behaviour in the classroom.  For example, all the KS1 pieces have contrived to include exclamations. This ticks the boxes but frankly, that number of exclamations sounds contrived. In fact, the exclamations read like retrospective additions.   One can’t be sure because one can’t see the original work.

The missing link

The most unsettling thing about the exemplification is that so many aspects of writing are ignored in favour of a narrow band of grammar, punctuation and spelling. Ideas, quality of thought, content, appropriate style, paragraphing, sequencing and connecting ideas are largely ignored. Someone forgot that language is about meaning and communication.

When Lord Bew resolved the dispute between government and unions over the last writing test, his approach was to put into the test those things that could be assessed on the spot, and to put into coursework those things that needed time to accrue such as the range of writing, drafting skills and extended writing. That settlement has been pushed aside for more grammar, punctuation and spelling, now doubly secure as the new definition of writing.  Well, the teaching profession spent many years bemoaning the unreliability of the writing test, and the DfE looked askance at the disjuncture between test and TA levels. That won’t be a problem now. Is this really what teachers had in mind when they boycotted the KS2 tests? Was this the better future for writing?

Another odd thing about the assessments is that they pick out some of the most banal moments simply because the writer has used, say, an expanded noun phrase or a subordinate clauses. This leads to the underestimation of some vivid and authentic moments in the ‘working towards’ category and some rewards for pedestrian prose in the ‘at expectation’ category.


The government has published the exemplification in two versions: one annotated and another unannotated for moderation purposes. Local moderation is a welcome prospect. I imagine that LA moderators will engage schools in estimating the grades of the unannotated work, but this will be more about confirming evidence than weighing judgements. Moderation will be helpful training in the new standard, but not really a discussion of overall value.

LA moderators have an unenviable task this year of asserting a restrictive view of children’s writing. Teachers are used to recognising and rewarding a wider range of writing skills.

The potential power of grammar

I am a fan of grammar. It opens doors to the teaching of expression. It empowers children by giving them a way of expressing more complex meanings. Since retiring, I have trained thousands of teachers in the grammar of the new curriculum, and how to introduce it to children for the benefit of writing, but I am now anxious about the effect of the new assessment system on everyday writing. My concern is that narrow tickbox assessments will hobble writing and force children into contrived expressions just to tick the boxes.  Not enough attention is being paid to meaning, creativity, voice, paragraphing and cohesion.

What to do?

  • Look at the exemplification very soon.
  • Check that all the teachers in your school understand all the performance descriptors for their key stage.
  • Try checking off some of your mid-range Year 2 and year 6 pupils against the Performance Descriptors and set them against the work featured in the exemplification.  Try to locate where the ‘at expectations’ borderline lies in your school.
  • Quickly train up your TAs to have a better grip on grammar and spelling.
  • Think in a principled way about how you can teach grammar in a meaningful, engaging and helpful way so that you get more out of this than tickbox success.
  • For the current cohort, consider using guided work to address gaps in grammar.