Ministers back down over English tests: Grammar and vocabulary sections scrapped after summer of boycotts by teachers' unions

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The Independent Online
ENGLISH tests for 14-year-olds which prompted a boycott by three unions this summer have been completely rewritten in response to teachers' criticisms.

The latest capitulation by ministers, after decisions to cut back the curriculum and testing, means controversial tests for grammar and vocabulary and use of a literary anthology have been dropped. Pupils will have test Shakespeare passages with them in the exam.

John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, has also given in to teachers' demands that pupils of all abilities take the same papers and that lower ability children be tested on Shakespeare. There will be an optional paper in language for which the brightest may be entered if teachers wish. This year pupils were entered for one of three sets of papers according to ability.

English tests were a main cause of the boycott. Teachers complained that they were educationally bad, involving rote- learning and too many short factual answers. As one government adviser put it: 'The boycott has had an effect. A year ago we were hearing all the time that ministers would not agree to something. Now we are being asked whether teachers will like it.'

Multiple-choice questions and those that require a short factual answer have been abandoned in favour of questions which demand an individual response and longer pieces of writing because teachers complained that this year's tests did not give pupils an opportunity to show what they could do. There will be two papers instead of three: one on Shakespeare and one on language. The second paper will contain two passages on a related theme, one literary and one more factual on which pupils will have to answer questions.

They will also be asked to do a piece of creative writing on the chosen theme. Children's use of grammar and vocabulary will be assessed from their writing.

The three set Shakespeare plays will remain but pupils will be told of two or three scenes - provided in an exam booklet - from which they must answer questions on one. The anthology of literary extracts which teachers said would mean children would not read whole books is being abandoned.

The changes mean the tests will be more like the GCSE exam and the exams most schools already set 14-year-olds. Anne Barnes, of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said: 'These tests . . . provide a greater diversity of opportunities for children to show what they can do.'

However, she said some teachers would still be unhappy. A proposal from officials at the Government's advisory body on testing that pupils should be tested on Shakespeare by a task which teachers would set during the school year was vetoed by ministers.

She added that teachers would also be worried that assessment of pupils would not count towards the final test mark. Classwork assessment marks will be published alongside test marks.

Samples of the new tests will be sent to schools next term.

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