Another Finnish Lesson


This post is appearing simultaneously on Common Space. Common Space is part of the Common Weal, an exciting component of the developing, democratic new media in Scotland.

Recently I wrote a comment piece for Common Space in which I suggested that, while the Scottish Government was right to try to address the issue of the ‘attainment gap’ in our schools, it was going about it in the wrong way, and that in Curriculum for Excellence we already had a blueprint for change, if only we had the courage to pursue it in reality.

The ‘new’ Scottish curriculum – which was written over a decade ago – is based on a number of key aims, set out in the report of the Review Group, including ‘for the first time ever, a single curriculum from 3-18’ and ‘young people achieving the broad outcomes that we look for from school education, both through subject teaching and more cross-subject activity’.

In reality, this ‘cross-subject activity’ is what always happened in primary schools, where one teacher at each stage is responsible for delivering the whole curriculum and where CfE, unsurprisingly,  appears to have had most impact. In the secondary sector however, the fragmented nature of the timetable has remained largely unchanged, making the goal of a single curriculum 3-18 seem as far away as ever.

Compare our approach to that of Finland, one of the more progressive and successful education systems in the world today. Not content with bucking the global trend towards exam-based, target-driven success criteria, the introduction of their National Curriculum Framework in 2016 will require all basic schools for 7-16 year-olds to have at least one extended period of multi-disciplinary, ‘phenomenon’ or topic-based teaching in their curriculum, the length of this period to be determined by the schools themselves (education in Finland is already far more decentralised than it is in Scotland).

Helsinki, the nation’s capital and largest local school system has decided to require two such yearly periods that must include all subjects and all students in every school town. This doesn’t signal an end to specialist subject teaching, but a move towards what you might call ‘big picture’ understanding, with topics including ‘The European Union’, ‘Community and Climate Change’ and ‘100 Years of Finland’s Independence’.

A holistic approach, involving the integration of knowledge and skills, is not new in Finland, but for the first time it will be a requirement of all school providers up to at least the age of 16. This will be a challenge to those middle-school teachers who have traditionally focused more on their own subject teaching and less on collaboration with their colleagues.

Pasi Sahlberg, leading Finnish educator and Visiting Professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, thinks the rest of the world may look at the proposals and wonder why Finland is pursuing these aims, at a time when the country is slipping slightly in the international league tables, and the answer is as bold as it is revealing;-

“The answer is that educators in Finland think, quite correctly, that schools should teach what young people need in their lives rather than try to bring national test scores back to where they were. What Finnish youth need more than before are more integrated knowledge and skills about real world issues, many argue. An integrated approach, based on lessons from some schools with longer experience of that, enhances teacher collaboration in schools and makes learning more meaningful to students.” (full article)

By describing the curriculum in terms of broad outcomes and experiences, Scotland is already thinking more progressively than other countries with long-established traditions of decent public schooling. The challenge now is whether, like the Finns, we will have the courage of our convictions in pursuing that more integrated curriculum, or whether we will continue to talk a good game while just coming up short when we actually take to the pitch.


The Power To Make A Difference

It may sound like romantic tosh, but I’m sure most teachers, if not all of them, enter the profession to try to make a difference to the lives of those they teach. I certainly did. I grew up on a council estate in a semi-rural area of south-west Scotland. I was the first of my family ever to go to university, and I could only afford it because of a generous government grant. One of the biggest influences in my life at that time was an inspirational teacher called Bob Bates. He used to read aloud to us, books like Animal Farm and Lucky Jim and Of Mice and Men, and we were captivated. He was never overtly political, but it was undoubtedly a political message; literature, and education generally, have the power to transform lives. Which is why I could never really understand expressions like ‘you shouldn’t mix politics and sport’ or ‘let’s keep politics out of this’. Politics are an integral part of who we are, what defines us as adults, so the idea of keeping our politics out of our teaching did not make any sense to me. I should add, however, that this is not the same a saying that we should be presenting young people with a singular view of the world, or that we should not be prepared to have our convictions challenged, but simply that if you try to leave the political aspects of your character at the door of the classroom then you leave part of your soul with it.

The Scottish Independence campaign as seen by Banksy

The Scottish Independence campaign as seen by Banksy?

Those of you who follow the blog on a regular basis, and especially those of you who live in the UK, will have realised by now that what I am leading to here is the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence, the most important decision facing our nation in over 300 years. I have set out my own reasons for voting YES below, and you can follow my curated history of coverage of the referendum, Scottish Independence – The Quiet Revolution – on by clicking on this link. If you are a fan of Pinterest I have also been collecting some of the hundreds of pro-independence posters which have become a feature of the campaign. Again, click on the link and you will find them.

One of the most significant, and controversial, aspects of the referendum is the decision to give voting rights to 16 and 17-year-olds (see also Literacy, Democracy and Responsible Citizens). Why it should be controversial is something of a puzzle to me, since it is entirely in keeping with aspects of citizenship in the Scottish curriculum, yet while there is almost universal agreement with the notion of teaching citizenship, a significant number of adults still seem reluctant to accept the idea of actually granting it to those very young people they wish to see behaving more responsibly. I have heard more than a few worrying stories about debate being closed down in schools rather than encouraged, and many local authorities, while ostensibly trying to  ensure impartiality, are frightening teachers into avoiding the topic altogether. This is not the way to develop a healthy democracy.

The referendum decision is one for the people who live and work in Scotland alone, but the consequences will affect all of those who live in the UK, so it is something which should be on the agenda in schools the length and breadth of the British Isles, and possibly beyond. If you are a teacher and interested in setting up a discussion or debate, you may want to check out these links, where you will find plenty of material to get you started. You will need to get off the mark quickly though; the referendum takes place just a fortnight from now, on Thursday the 18th of September!

Political Literacy and the Independence Referendum. Education Scotland

How to Teach the Referendum on Scottish Independence. Guardian Teacher Network

Further Reading:

Common Weal: A Discussion Paper on the development of a vision for Scotland. Jimmy Reid Foundation

Scotland’s Future: Your Guide To An Independent Scotland (Kindle). Scottish Government

11 Reasons A Yes Vote Will Improve Democracy. National Collective

The Wee Blue Book: The Facts The Papers Leave Out. Wings Over Scotland

Blossom: What Scotland Needs To Flourish (Kindle). Lesley Riddoch

Road To Referendum: The Essential Guide To The Scottish Referendum (Kindle). Iain Mc Whirter


Our Time. First Minister Alex Salmond

Aye Talks. Dr Phillipa Whitford, Consultant Breast Surgeon

The Bigger The LIe: Media Bias In The Scottish Independence Referendum. John Robertson

Yes Scotland Playlist


Wings Over Scotland

Bella Caledonia

Newsnet Scotland

Business For Scotland

Yes Scotland

Common Weal Logo: All Of Us First

Common Weal Logo: All Of Us First

Why I Will Be Voting YES

I personally have done reasonably well as part of the UK, so why am I voting Yes?

Put quite simply, I don’t want to grow up in a country where an increasing number of our children are being brought up in poverty, where a new food bank opens every four days, where immigrants are treated with suspicion, where replacing nuclear weapons is more important than repairing roads, and where over 2,000 of our elderly population died needlessly last winter because they couldn’t afford to heat their houses.

I don’t belong to a political party. Never have. But this referendum is not a choice between one political party and another. It is not about any individual politician or political leader. It is about one thing and one thing only – whether you think decisions about Scotland are best taken by the people of Scotland or whether you think they should be taken for us at Westminster? The ‘democratic deficit’ means that in only 13 of the past 35 years did Scotland get the government at Westminster that it voted for – and we know how that turned out. Anybody remember Tony Blair and Gordon Brown?

On the other hand, let’s have a look at the current Scottish Government’s record. Acting within the constraints of Westminster cuts (Scotland’s budget is allocated via a ‘block grant’ from the UK Treasury) they have introduced free prescriptions, free healthcare for the elderly, free bus travel for over-60s, in addition to free university tuition fees – education based on the ability to learn, not on the ability to pay. Scotland already has its own separate education system, legal system and National Health Service (separate in terms of policy but reliant on London spending decisions). These services stand comparison not only with the rest of the UK but with the rest of the world. Scotland has more universities per head of population in the top 200 than any other nation.

So, if we are capable of running education, the law and the health service for ourselves, then why would we be incapable of defending ourselves, running our own welfare service or managing our own money? Another glaring example of the democratic deficit in Scotland is on the issue of nuclear weapons – opposed by around 80% of Scots, yet imposed by all the main political parties at Westminster, at a cost of something in the order of 100 billion pounds. Just imagine how that money could be spent to benefit the everyday lives of the people of this country.

Westminster isn’t working for the people of Scotland. The current coalition government’s so-called ‘austerity programme’ is a choice, not an inevitability. It is a myth to say that we are a poor country. There is an abundance of money in the UK, it is how the wealth is distributed that is the problem – did you know that there are currently around 280,000 millionaires in Britain? The UK is currently the 4th most unequal country in the developed world. As a result of Westminster cuts, ONE IN FOUR children in Scotland is living in poverty, and that figure is closer to ONE IN TWO in some parts of Glasgow. Smart education policies can compensate to some extent for inequalities, but only full economic powers can allow us to tackle the underlying issues. Last year there were over 2,400 excess winter deaths among the elderly in this country, double the rate of colder EU countries, and 49% of pensioners are currently living in fuel poverty. These are truly shocking statistics.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the solution lies not in hoping for a change of government, or heart, at Westminster, but by voting to stand on our own two feet and to choose a different route, a different future. Independence is not a new concept; it is normality for most people. There are just over 200 independent countries in the world. Three quarters of them have only been independent since 1900, and many of them are smaller than Scotland.

With control of our own affairs Scotland can potentially be a world leader – not in terms of bombs, or threats, or posturing on the world stage, but in areas like renewable energy, and in making a significant contribution to protecting the future of the planet. As an example, the largest tidal energy project in Europe is just about to get underway in the Pentland Firth. When completed it will power 40% of homes in the Highlands. At a time when scientists are warning about the dangers of global warming, think how much potential there is out there, not only for Scotland to become self-sufficient in energy, but to be a net exporter of energy to other countries, and to lead the way in tackling climate change.

So the question is not whether we are big enough, or smart enough, or whether we can afford it. There is only one question to be answered. Do you think decisions about Scotland should be made by the people who live and work in Scotland, or do you think they should be made by Westminster, in the House of Commons and the unelected House of Lords? This is not about ‘separating’, or turning our backs on our friends and neighbours. It is about standing on our own two feet and making our own decisions. It’s about hope, not fear. It’s about the future, not the past. It’s about ambition, not tradition. It’s about fairness, not about wealth.

We have the opportunity – perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – to create the kind of Scotland we want to see in the world – a greener, fairer, more democratic Scotland. As singer-songwriter and political commentator Pat Kane said: “You’ve got the chance to stand on this earth and say: I built a better society. I decided to do that, for myself, for my children, for future generations. And all it needed was a cross in the right box.”

Don’t Blame Boo Radley

To Kill a Mockingbird. Other great books are available.

To Kill a Mockingbird. Other great books are available.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a great book. It is one of many great books, and it happens to be written by an American. It is one of many great books written in the English language, and it happens to be written by an American, and it happens to be written by a woman. You see, great books are written in many languages, by writers male and female, of many nationalities. One of the key roles of teachers is to introduce young people to great books, at the appropriate times, and in accordance with their developing love of reading and awareness of the world. By now, I hope, you are all nodding in agreement.

So when an English Education Secretary says that young people are not reading enough, that they are not reading difficult enough books, and that he wants to make sure that they are reading ‘a wide range of texts’, what is there to disagree with? Well quite a lot , actually. Michael Gove’s announced changes to the literature requirement for GCSE English caused more than a little anger this week, with media channels, writers, bloggers and commentators rushing to proclaim that he had ‘banned’ American literature from English schools, including one or two which had become classroom staples for recent generations. (see To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men axed as Gove Orders More Brit Lit).

In reality, what he had actually done was to set out a minimum requirement for anyone studying GCSE Literature  – a Shakespeare play; poetry from 1789, including the Romantics; a 19th-century novel; and some fiction or drama written in the British Isles since 1914, to be precise. Besides believing that this would provide a much-needed injection of his favourite ingredient, ‘rigour’,  he further defended the changes by adding, “Beyond this, exam boards have the freedom to design specifications so that they are stretching and interesting (sic), and include any number of other texts from which teachers can then choose” and that teachers had welcomed a “specification that allows for Keats and Heaney, Shakespeare and Miller, the Brontes and Pinter.” (see Michael Gove Attacks ‘Fictitious’ Claims He Has Banned US Books From School).

The telling word in this statement is ‘allows’. Of course, the syllabus ‘allows’ for the reading and study of any other works of literature, but TIME doesn’t. In reality, overstretched teachers will stick to the texts which are guaranteed to come up in the exam, because they will ultimately be judged by their students’ results. I have written before about this effect (see Of Mice and Flies: Death by Examination), and how it leads to the demise of reading rather than its further development. Reading for pleasure and enlightenment gives way to learning how to write ‘critical’ essays and preparing for the test. Not that we in Scotland have anything to be complacent about here. Admittedly there are fewer restrictions on the choice of texts which young people can use in response to exam questions (see National 5 English Course Assessment Specifications) , but the introduction of a compulsory Scottish text in national courses recently was a mistake, and I say that as someone with a deep regard for Scottish culture and who has read, taught and enjoyed a considerable number of Scottish texts, both fiction and non-fiction. If this is indeed social engineering, as some would claim, then the fact that we are not quite in the Govean league of social engineering is nothing really to be proud of.

You see, there are two important principles at stake here. The first is that it is not the role of politicians to determine what young people read. If it was then we may as well make teachers redundant, send reading lists home to parents and their

Gregory Peck and Mary Badham in the film adaptation of Harper Lee's classic novel.

Gregory Peck and Mary Badham in the film adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel.

kids, and let them get on with it. If Michael Gove had really wanted young people to read more widely, then what he should have done was to remove the specified texts completely from the exam requirements, then teachers (and students) would truly have to argue the merits of their chosen texts. Nor should it be the role of examination boards to determine what young people read. As I said earlier, that belongs to the trained professional, the teacher. And that is the second important principle.

“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Postscript: Michael Gove’s announcement had two immediate effects. Three of the four main examining bodies in England immediately removed the aforementioned American authors from their list of specified texts, and sales of To Kill a Mockingbird from Amazon increased significantly.

End Of An Era

teacherWell, I’ve gone and done it. As of today, I am officially an ‘ex-teacher’. I decided to cancel my registration to the GTCS (General Teaching Council Scotland) since I hadn’t actually taught in a school for the best part of the last decade. After a few years with Learning and Teaching Scotland (now Education Scotland) I have been working independently, while holding on to my teaching registration ‘in case of emergency’ as it were. Realistically, I am never going to teach kids again, but I intend to work with and support teachers for a good few years to come, so don’t dare use the ‘R’ word in my company if you don’t mind. It’s such an old-fashioned concept these days.

To mark this momentous occasion I received two letters from the GTCS in the post today. Unfortunately neither contained the gold watch I jokingly referred to when I spoke to the young woman on the other end of the phone on Wednesday. However, I did appreciate the sentiment contained in the first of them.

“Dear Mr Boyd,

On behalf of the GTCS, I would like to thank you for the time you have given to the teaching profession in Scotland. One of our aims is to ensure the highest standard of teaching and learning in our schools. Your commitment has helped make this possible and has no doubt contributed significantly to improving the prospects and opportunities for the young people whom you have taught.”

Over the course of more than thirty years in the classroom I would like to think there is some truth in this, and the thing which gives me most satisfaction is the number of ex-pupils I meet frequently around my home town who want to reminisce about ‘the time you……….’ etc etc. Not once, after all that time, has any of these conversations been other than positive, funny or heart-felt.

The other letter, in case you were still wondering, began as follows.

“Dear Mr Boyd,

I am writing to inform you that your annual registration fee of £50 is due for payment. As we have Direct Debit instructions held on your record, the payment will be deducted on or around 27th May 2014. If the payment is successful, your record will be automatically updated to show that the registration fee has been paid. If for any reason the direct Debit is not successful, we will write out to provide you with alterblamenative payment methods.”

It would be easy to sink into a slough of depression at this point, and to conclude that one is indeed only a number in an over-bureaucratic system, but that would be to exaggerate greatly the case. There is no other profession which comes close to that of the teacher.It is indeed an honour and a privilege, and the greatest rewards don’t come in the form of gold watches but in the appreciation from those who matter most.

A Novel Approach To Reading


Contains more than recipes. Art, geography, history, photography, folklore and classical culture are all covered.

Since acquiring an eReader last year, my reading habits seem to be developing into a new pattern, whereby I tend to download and read novels from the screen, but continue to buy non-fiction titles, graphic novels and – an increasing obsession – cookery books, in paper format. I suppose the most obvious reason is the tactile quality of many of these latter texts – I’m thinking of titles like Shaun Tan’s The Arrivals or Chris Ware’s Building Stories which is literally a book in three dimensions – but there is often, too, something about the physical weight or heft of a book in your hand which, in the case of many cookery books for example, suggests bounty or treasure – you feel as if you are getting something for your money. These are the texts for which the word ‘book’ now seems a bit inadequate, for often they are indeed artefacts or works of art.

However, sticking with novels for the moment, once you have become a fiction addict you are always on the lookout for that next fix, and I recently enjoyed a great novel called Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk by Ben Fountain. As it happens I was on Twitter when I spotted this tweet from Jamie Byng of Canongate, who published the book, and was intrigued enough to favourite it for later reference. A quick look at the reviews on Amazon confirmed that it was  ‘my kind of book’, so I downloaded a sample to my Kindle and was reading it within minutes. How the magic of technology has improved and enhanced our reading habits in recent years, particularly that facility to read a sample before we decide whether we want to read the whole text or not.

None of that would have happened though, I guess, if I wasn’t already a reader. How I  became a regular reader is a long story – much longer than any novel – which started way back in primary school, when the Friday afternoon ‘treat’ of silent reading wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea but suited me just fine, thank you very much. The generous class library, which comprised most of Enid Blyton’s prodigious output, Just William in every imaginable situation, a smattering of Jennings and Derbyshire and W.E. John’s handlebar-moustached hero Captain Biggles, held a seductive enough range of material with which to escape the classroom for a couple of otherwise dreary hours. For a boy growing up in a semi-rural working-class West of Scotland community, the main attraction of the stories was the excitement of exploring other worlds, a virtual travel agency if you like, which is exactly what reading does.

Just William

Just William

It is through reading, and especially through fiction, that we are able to journey, for a while, alongside people who are not like us.

You can perhaps understand then why my heart sinks every time I hear teachers discussing which novel (often  singular) they will be ‘teaching’ students this year. I don’t blame them (I was that teacher once), but the exam-driven system which has brought them to this state of affairs. I too spent many hours in the classroom – this time as a teacher – pulling apart some  great novels to look at how you might squeeze them into the straitjacket of a particular essay question. It was a system designed for a minority of students who would study literature at university, and it doesn’t have to be that way.

Imagine an education system where young people read an increasing number of books year on year, and keep on doing so long after they leave school, rather than, in many cases, abandoning the practice as soon as they are no longer ‘made to read’. Imagine if the culmination of your efforts as a teacher, and the measure of your success was not exam results but the number of lifelong readers you had helped to create. Imagine, if in their final year, the task you set the class was not to write a ‘critical essay’, which in all likelihood most of them will never have to do again, but to complete a group investigation something like the one below. Imagine the opportunities that would present, the reading that could be done, the fun you could have together, and the gift you could pass on to future generations.

Final Year Reading Task

What is the origin of the novel as a storytelling form, and why does it remain popular today?

What novels would you say every young person should read?

What features would you say are common to all the novels you (as a group) have read?

What distinguishes a successful novel from an unsuccessful novel, and is ‘successful’ the same as good?

Why should we read novels written in previous centuries?

Further Reading:

The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller

Study: Reading Novels Makes Us Better Thinkers

Related Posts:

Sticking to the Plot

Lighting a Spark for Reading

Of Mice, Flies and Farms: Death by Examination

The Power of Fiction and the Storytelling Animal

Reading by Numbers

Too Much Information

digital-info-literacyThe ease with which we are now able to access information, which is, after all, the first requirement in the acquisition of knowledge, is what makes the development of literacy so markedly different in this century from how it might have looked for the best part of the previous one. In the typical classroom of fifty years ago, sources of information were severely limited, and what was in the teacher’s head would constitute most of it. To say that things have changed is such an understatement that it hardly needs to be said, but the pervasive nature of the internet has been largely responsible for the term ‘information literacy’ and the sense of urgency with which it has entered the educational lexicon. No one disputes that, more than ever, the ability to find, sift, sort and use information is a key component in the development of an educated mind , but we are all of us still in the early stages of understanding the full implications of the free flow of information across the electronic networks. What the term ‘information literacy’ actually means, and how – in practical terms – it can be developed, is still up for discussion, as are the means by which teachers can ensure that all learners meet this essential learning outcome by the time they have reached the age of twelve or thirteen:

“To help me develop an informed view, I am exploring the techniques used to influence my opinion. I can recognise persuasion and assess the reliability of information and credibility and value of my sources.”

Scottish Curriculum for Excellence, Literacy and English Outcome Level Three (age 12-13 approximately)

It is quite clear that In order to develop this ability, there are a number of questions which first have to be addressed, including:

  • What ARE the techniques used to influence opinion? (emotive language? scaremongering? appeal to the senses?, use of statistics?)
  • How DO you recognise persuasion? (separating fact from opinion)
  • How do you assess the reliability of ANY information, but especially that found online? (who produced it and what was their objective?)
  • How do you ASCERTAIN the source of information, even before you attempt to assess its credibility? (or, do you know how to trace the source of a text?)

A  very useful addition to the ‘information literacy’ discussion this week has been the release of web player Mozilla’s Web Literacy Standard. Cutting across traditionally recognised subject spaces, the Standard is grouped under three strands – Exploring, Building and Connecting – and is described by the developers as ‘a map of competencies and skills that Mozilla and our community of stakeholders believe are important to pay attention to when getting better at reading, writing and participating on the web’. While some of our information still comes from traditional sources – word of mouth, newspapers, books, television – we are increasingly moving online, so that ‘information literacy’ and understanding the world wide web may ultimately become one and the same thing.  Anything which takes us towards a better understanding of how that relationship works must surely be a good thing.


For further information about the Web Literacy Standard and other Mozilla web tools click here.

To download a copy of the National Information Literacy Framework Scotland click here.

Testing Time For Teachers?

“In defining literacy for the 21st century we must consider the changing forms of language which our children and young people will experience and use. Accordingly, the definition takes account of factors such as the speed with which information is shared and the ways it is shared. The breadth of the definition is intended to ‘future proof’ it. Within Curriculum for Excellence, therefore, literacy is defined as:

the set of skills which allows an individual to engage fully in society and in learning, through the different forms of language, and the range of texts, which society values and finds useful. “

Scottish Curriculum for Excellence: Literacy and English Principles and Practice

When ‘Teaching Scotland’s Future’, the Scottish Government report on the findings of the Review of Teacher Education, was published in 2011, one of its more controversial recommendations was the introduction of literacy and numeracy assessments for aspiring teachers, a strange suggestion – at least to my mind – in a country which already has an all-graduate profession, and where the overwhelming majority of new entrants has a Higher English qualification. Just over two and a half years later, the tests, which appear to be voluntary, have just been published on an Education Scotland website and greeted with predictable  media headlines such as this one in the Scotsman newspaper –  ‘TEACHERS TO BE GIVEN TESTS IN STANDARDS DRIVE‘ – thereby cementing in the collective consciousness an assumed relationship between the introduction of a test and the raising of those elusive ‘standards’. There already exists a set of ‘Standards for Registration’ for anyone entering the teaching profession in Scotland, and very good they are too. In fact they were revised recently, and you can find them on the General Teaching Council for Scotland’s website, which is where I would have thought anyone aspiring to a teaching career in Scotland, and with a modicum of ambition, would look first.

And so to the tests themselves (raising along the way the question of whether it is ever acceptable to begin a sentence with a conjunction). Despite the very broad definition of literacy in Education Scotland’s own CfE literacy framework document (see above), the new literacy tests consist of a very small number of questions on spelling, punctuation and grammar, such as this one, where you are asked to choose the correctly punctuated version of a short piece of prose.


When you have clicked on your answer, the following text appears:-


As you can see, in this case the correct version of the sentence is number 3, for the reasons given. Except that it isn’t. None of the sentences is correct. The comma before the direct speech would suggest that the prefect was instructing the class to whisper the words ‘This noise is unacceptable’, which I don’t think she was. The comma in fact should be a full stop. You see, the problem with this kind of test is that what you are testing is pretty complex, and even when you think you have nailed it you are never quite sure what you are actually testing. Then of course a decision has to made about what percentage of correct answers makes a person ‘literate’ enough. At the end of another section of the tests – ‘confusing words quiz’ – for example, where you are invited to choose the correct version in context between two homonyms or similarly spelled words, a score of three from seven is deemed to be ‘reasonable’. How reasonable do you think 3 correct answers out of  7 is?

If this is a diagnostic tool to help aspiring teachers  judge for themselves which aspects of their language skills they need to work on – and the fact that the tests are voluntary and tucked away on a website which took me more than half an hour to find would suggest that it is – then all well and good. It may prove to be a useful resource in addition to those which are already out there. Unless I am missing something, the fact that the tests are not compulsory would also suggest that the government has rejected the recommendation to introduce some kind of additional ‘entry level’ examination, and decided on a different approach. If so, all credit to them – the hazardous nature of setting such a test has been demonstrated above. Standards will not be raised by introducing more tests, but through an understanding on the part of anyone entering the profession that their first commitment is to their own continuing programme of learning, and an acceptance of three basic principles:

  • We are learners first, teachers second.
  • Good communication is at the heart of all learning and teaching.
  • We are all learning to be more literate.

“Candidates for teaching should undertake diagnostic assessments of their competence in both literacy and numeracy. The threshold established for entry should allow for weaknesses to be addressed by the student during the course. A more demanding level should be set as a prerequisite for competence to teach.”

Teaching Scotland’s Future: Report of a review of teacher education in Scotland, 2011


To try the tests for yourself go to to the Aspiring Teachers website.

To read more about the vagaries of grammar teaching and testing visit this excellent blog by language expert David Crystal.

For a list of free websites to help with the development of English language skills click here.