After one quarter of primary schools in England boycotted last year’s SATs, a government investigation has concluded that the English schools examination system promotes “no element of creativity”. So what is wrong with English essay writing, and how can we work to improve creativity?

The investigation, lead by Lord Bew, took into account the findings and opinions of a group of highly respected and experienced head teachers. Greg Wallace, one of the members of the panel, who is executive principal of four schools, argued that the so-called “creative writing” SAT exam simply drilled children into the ability to construct formulaic sentences. Far from encouraging their imagination and creative flair, he argued that their creativity was in fact stifled by so rigid a means of measuring their creative writing.

The point seems to be that whilst children in England are constantly reminded of the importance of structured, ordered essay writing, with a familiar structure including an introduction, separate paragraphs and a conclusion, a strict adherence to these aspects as the only markers of value in a written test is detrimental to a child’s own powers of imagination and individual expression.

There were even fears that our academic perceptions of what is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ piece of writing might be pushing students into churning out one ‘custom essay’ again and again, with only minor alterations made to the structure each time according to the content of the piece.

Meanwhile, children’s authors including Michael Rosen and Roger McGough backed the study, warning that the SAT tests were “killing creativity”. They, along with the review panel, argued for a less intrusive system of assessment, whereby a teacher would mark a child based on their creative writing over a whole year instead of on the basis of one single assignment completed under time pressure.

This is good news for children with learning difficulties, who have frequently been seen to suffer under the constraints of time-limited examinations, and will provide a fairer, more reliable assessment of children’s progress.
But one can’t help wondering whether more than simply a change of assessment technique is required in a system so restricting that a very ‘creative writing’ test is actually accused by head teachers of having a detrimental effect on children’s creativity. Perhaps a move away from our formulaic expectations of essay writing structure and format would be an effective way to begin to encourage pupils to express themselves using new and more meaningful methods? Certainly it seems likely that a move away from a system so obsessed with examinations and results league tables must be a move towards individuality and creativity in our children’s writing.