Perfectly Adequate

The problem with minimum standards is that that may well be what we aim for and, in achieving them, stop striving for better still.

You may have had the experience at the end of a training session where the inevitable feedback form comes round. Sometimes it comes in what strikes me as a saccharine format; the ‘even better if’ question. I always think that this is semantics or dressing up criticism under a euphemism.

But ‘even better if’ does at least try to get past the standard achieved and to improve whatever was being delivered in that session, or to improve the method by which it was delivered. It is a sign that the leader was not content to settle with how things were done or what was achieved – it presents as a sincere attempt to improve.

We undertook some training in teaching writing recently. We have an issue with a gender gap; one that has not gone away easily or quickly. Girls outperform boys in writing at the end of Key Stage 2 and have done at our school and nationally for about as far back as tests and records exist. This is a particularly stark statistic at ‘greater depth’: at our school, double the percentage of girls got to GDS as did boys in 2019. It is a bigger gap than nationally, and our boys ‘only’ reach the average for boys nationally.

One of the key messages from our trainer / consultant was how easy it is to achieve ‘perfectly adequate’ writing. Give a simple framework and a list of features for each genre and children will meet the standard. They can and will produce a ‘perfectly adequate’ diary, story or recount and then stop. What we had to consider was one element of the assessment scheme – that children select words (and compose writing) for a deliberate impact on the reader.

We need to set the bar higher and to challenge writers to do more than produce a recipe or to write a persuasive letter – we can all knock out something that looks a lot like a letter and has all the features of persuasion and yet totally fails to persuade.

To be honest we do find ourselves telling children to check their work to put in ‘better’ vocabulary. What we need to be asking children to do is to check that their writing has the desired effect, and to change the vocabulary that does not support the point.

Say we want the reader to appreciate how quiet and calm things are in the garden. Writing about the ‘wind’ does not give the picture correctly to the reader, whereas referring to a ‘breeze’ does. Describing the fluttering of butterfly wings would do the same, but a dog barking at clouds does not quite work. Children playing bowls or boule on the lawn works well, but playing football or on a trampoline does not.

To get more boys writing at the greater depth standard we need them to think more about their deliberate choice of words, and the order in which they place the words. To get them to do this we will be changing the way we present the aim of the piece – the WILF (What I’m Looking For), we will mark accordingly and then give feedback and editing time to see it through.

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