Key Stage 1 changes take writing back to the 19th Century

I attended a briefing by the Standards and Testing Agency (STA) on February 5 for local authority leaders of statutory moderation of writing (key stages 1 and 2).

This briefing revealed to us for the first time some of the specific requirements of the writing that, in a few months’ time, we will be examining to verify teachers’ end of key stage assessments this year.

While there were some positive aspects to this day, such as the STA’s encouragingly broad definition of independent writing, there was one particular message that has caused some concern – the fact that moderators will need to see evidence of seven-year-old children using a very specific definition of “exclamation sentences” in their writing to be judged to be working at the expected standard.

The definition of an “exclamation sentence” being applied is that it must start with either “how” or “what” and, to be a full sentence, must include a verb.

So, an exclamation such as “How amazing!” would not count. It would need the addition of a verb (e.g. “How amazing it was!”) to qualify. Not exactly common parlance for your average 21st century seven-year-old.

The problem is that this definition was not made at all clear, either in the national curriculum or in the Interim Teacher Assessment Frameworks, and has only now become apparent – four months before the assessments must be submitted.

Can anyone justify this extraordinary requirement for seven-year-old children to write in such an old-fashioned tongue?

The national curriculum (2013) tells us that in year 2 children should learn how to use “sentences with different forms: statement, question, exclamation, command”. The glossary goes on to provide an example of an exclamation (“What a good friend you are!”).

However it stops short of explicitly defining an exclamation sentence.

The KS1 English grammar punctuation and spelling test framework (2014) states: “For the purposes of the… test, an exclamation is required to start with What or How”.

This was the first statement of the definition being used, although the phrase “for the purposes of the test” might lead one to infer that it did not apply to the teacher assessment of writing.

Ironically, neither example given in the test framework document (“What a lovely day!  How exciting!”) fits the current definition, as neither includes a verb.

Even after the publication of the Interim Teacher Assessment Frameworks for KS1 and 2 (2015) the ambiguity prevails.

The document for KS1 (but interestingly not KS2!) includes (at “expected standard”) the following:

“The pupil can write a narrative…:

– using sentences with different forms in their writing (statements, questions, exclamations and commands)”

But the document does not specify that all four sentence types shown within the brackets must be evident.

The message at the STA briefing – and implicit in the newly released exemplification materials – is that moderators do need to see all four sentence types to agree that a pupil is writing at the expected standard, including exclamations that are full sentences.

The exemplification of writing at Working Towards Expected Standard (produced by “Charlie”) includes “what a amazing adventer!” [sic] which is annotated as an exclamatory phrase (not a full sentence as no verb).  Charlie has not been credited with using exclamation sentences.

As we are now required to see evidence of writing that meets every single criterion, rather than taking a “best fit” approach, this lack of exclamation sentences becomes crucial.

As a KS1 moderator, I am deeply uncomfortable about this situation for the following reasons:

– It has not been made clear until half way through this academic year that year 2 children must be writing these very precisely defined sentence

– The required form of “exclamation sentence” does not seem to be a natural form of expression for a 21st century seven-year-old to use in either spoken or written language

– There is a clear imperative for teachers to now do some extremely focused “teaching to the test” (or, in this case, teacher assessment) to ensure all their pupils include some exclamation sentences in their writing, for no real purpose other than to get the results the school needs for the accountability regime

– Having been told that the problem with the previous system of teacher assessment was that it had become all about “feature-spotting”, this approach takes feature-spotting to a whole new level


Is this going to lead to better teaching? Is this going to lead to better standards in writing? Or is this about promoting a formulaic “painting by numbers” approach to writing?

Can anyone within the Department for Education (DfE) justify this extraordinary requirement for seven-year-old children to write in such an old-fashioned tongue?

The only way forward I can see is for every single year 2 teacher across the country to make sure that, between now and June 13 (when KS1 assessments must be submitted), she or he has taught the children to include the following phrases in their narrative recounts:


What fun we had!

How simply marvellous it was!

What an unfortunate incident we witnessed!

How devastated we were!

Then we, the moderators, can tick that box and move on. How farcical this has become.


What the DfE told us:

An exclamation mark has wider usage: it can mark an exclamation or give emphasis or emotive force to a statement or command.

A spokesperson said: “A high-quality education in English – and the ability to communicate effectively – is an important part of the government’s commitment to extend opportunity to all.
“The national curriculum programme of study for English writing in year 2 states that pupils should learn how to use sentences with different forms, for example, as a statement, question, exclamation and command. A sentence that takes the form of an exclamation starts with ‘What’ or ‘How’ and uses the syntax of an exclamation.”


Ben Fuller is also President of the Association for Achievement and Improvement through Assessment

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  1. Paul Mowat

    Outstanding analysis, Ben!

    My children are currently in KS1 and KS4 and on the basis of the bollocks-heavy attainment / target sheets that we were given, it’s flaming carnage out there. Teachers readily admit that they hate having to hand out the targets sheets, let alone having to explain how the standards for levels have changed since the previous year, which is why children are now performing sub-target when they were previously on track or ahead of target.

    My children routinely have to learn stuff that I didn’t learn about until secondary school, which seems like needless madness to me.

    Gove, Morgan, Tories – ideological children damagers all.

  2. The DfE will say “we make no apologies for blah rigour blah achievement blah standards blah …”

    Children will reproduce the phrases they have learnt to put on the test papers.

    Teachers will be accused of gaming the system.

    PISA results will tell us that our standards of basic education have continued to fall when measured against countries that do not test their kids to destruction.

    The teacher recruitment crisis will get worse and Nick Gibb will deny that there is any problem.

    The head teacher unions will continue to make tiny ineffectual noises whilst their top members get large pay increases as MAT executives whilst waiting for their “good boy” peerages.

    A new DfE friendly Head of OFSTED will be appointed to confirm that the government’s policies are all on track to making a “world class education system”.

    Nicky Morgan will announce the seventeenth review into teacher workload which will report on 2024.

  3. Carly May

    Ridiculous! I’ve always been a ks2 moderator but have refused this year, as the whole system is totally unreasonable – I would love to boycott the whole thing and just restore the passion for learning with the kids I teach, rather than filling them with ridiculous formulae and tricks for an area of the curriculum that should be 70% creativity – so sad it’s come to a grammar tick box exercise

  4. Mike Lawton

    As a Chair of Governors of a community primary school I despair at what teachers are being expected to achieve. Not high standards coupled with a love of language and its usage, but a formulaic, ill conceived, dogma driven exercise guaranteed to frustrate inquisitive learners which will produce more complaints about a lack of progress in literacy. When will the DfE and its political masters learn that grammar and language are part of an evolving mechanism of communication and not a hallowed code carved into the wooden desks of Eton.

  5. Rachel Birch

    My child in year 2 had his first ever ‘holiday homework’ this half term, a comprehension assessment. It was dull and he gained nothing stimulating from it. Why suddenly is he getting ‘holiday homework’? His excellent teacher has obviously just been presented with what is expected of these young children and is worried.
    Personally I know how much more my son (and I) got from the spy story he wrote “how to do gymnastics at robbers.” Why are we putting our dull children through this? It is beyond belief.

  6. Kate Bahnsen

    Why are we allowing our children and their dedicated teachers to be put through this nonsense?
    Are we now moving backwards?

    As a parent, I will happily March on Westminster to demand the government stops all this.
    We just had our six year old happy go lucky intelligent son bursting into tears, at the dinner table, because he is worried that he won’t get all the answers right in the tests. That he is not always sure which sentences the tests want him to write. How did we get here?
    Teachers unions, you have a strong force to be reckoned with in parents. Call on us, organise it and we will stand with you. Start petitions to the d of e, we will sign, we will march. We have confidence in you, we entrust our 6 year olds to you care, if you aren’t happy then we are not happy. Let’s change it.
    The suits are voted in by us. They will listen if enough of us shout.

  7. Catherine MacArthur

    I think all SK1 and SK2 children, teachers and parents should refuse to do the tests … get the children to tackle the Government … there are bright 7 year olds out there and many more very bright 10 and 11 year olds!
    This is a divide and rule tactic by the Gov’t an age old stratagem of war.

  8. Do you think there was a closet star wars fan in the negotiation process. How brave you are Luke Skywalker! What a good friend you are R2D2! By Yoda

    Whenever I teach this from now on we will be Yoda. How clever I am!

  9. Hannah read

    Here I am on a Sunday trying to help my yr 2 six year old with her ludicrous English homework. I am glad we have booked our family holiday for just before the May half term as I am hoping she will miss these ridiculous sats. Five more minutes of homework, then I’m getting her out in the garden to do what kids should be doing at the weekends!