And here’s the fast lane

Yesterday, the GCSE results were out. I had five students sitting GCSEs this time. Three got A*s. They’re bright children and it was easy for them. They were a joy to teach. An A* is usually something that only comes through examination – it’s that ability to write concisely and precisely under pressure. A*s are down, though, so I’m super proud that they did so well.

Another student, entered a year early, got great results too. He’s not a boy who loves English, but he truly did the best he could and got a great result.

And my final student… well, this is where the impact of yesterday’s news is.

I’ve been his tutor for 5 years, since he was a cute little year seven. He got a great level 6 in his KS3 exams at 14, and while English is not his aptitude (he got As in all the sciences and maths) he should have gone on to get at least an easy C or a B. He was taught by the head of department and she wanted to enter him for foundation tier.

Foundation tier is kind of the CSE paper. It can net you a C.

However, I mark foundation tier, and having done so for the last fifteen years, I can confidently say that I’ve had about 100 C grade papers, out of maybe 100,000 papers. It doesn’t really happen.

And if it does, the candidate should have been in the higher tier. I once taught a lovely girl who went to a very poor school. She was a real sweetheart. She got a ‘notional’ B as one of 200 students who should have been on the higher tier. I tried arguing the toss, but it made no difference.

I once went for a second in department job at the school. The man who interviewed me looked like Joe-90. He laughed when I told him I’d base my plans on the National Curriculum. I asked him what was wrong. He said he ‘didn’t believe’ in the National Curriculum. That’s not like saying you don’t believe in the Bible. That’s fine. But not believing in the National Curriculum, well, that’s like not believing in air. It’s there. You have to do it. There’s no option. It’s non-negotiable. I walked out of the interview and later heard he’d given the post to his best mate who looked like Penfold from Dangermouse. 

Fit to run a department?

Obviously, it’s not fair to compare people to cartoon characters based on their appearance. Let’s just say the cartoon characters were more amusing and less of a joke.

Anyway, it’s fair to say there are SOME teachers in SOME schools who aren’t fit to do the job. They hide behind weak management teams or ineffective sacking or competency procedures and unions.

However, I don’t think my student today had that against him, so much, apart from the fact his teacher’s expectations seemed to be a whole lot lower than mine. It became a battle to put him in for the higher tier, who see C grades all the time. On a good day as well, my student might have been a B. He was in Literature.

But today, he was two marks off a C.

He’s not a D grade candidate. D grade candidates, bless ’em, well, it’s a bit like knocking on wood. They often try really hard but they don’t get it. They kind of do everything a C grade does, but not because they thought to themselves, so none of it feels right. It feels rehearsed. They’re just not there yet. They write like some people drive when they pass their test – just. It’s wooden rather than instinctive. They hold the wheel at 10-2 and none of it feels comfortable. It’s not graceful. They’re not going to crash, but remembering ‘mirror-signal-maneuver’ is a conscious decision for them  and you can see them telling themselves to do it. It’s there, but it’s not an instinct.

And a C grade is a more instinctive writer and reader. They go beyond the simple mnemonics they’ve been taught. My student was like that. You could see his mind at work in his writing. It didn’t just spill out like E or F grade writing, and it wasn’t reliant on rules, like D grade writing.

And let’s be clear. English is not his thing. Maths is. And that’s a different kind of literate all together.

But his college entry was reliant on a C.

He was 2 marks off.

He has 8 A*-C grades and one D. One D by 2 marks.

Which is why it makes me incensed that from all sides of England, it seems there’s an issue with the English results. It’s been in every major paper. It’s been top of the agenda. Apparently, Glenys Stacey, the bureaucrat head of Ofqual, the allegedly non-governmental agency responsible for maintaining standards has actually not ‘maintained’ standards, but toughened them up. Randomly. Without warning. A C in January would be a D today.

Of course, this is as a result of slipping standards. Let’s see. I was the second year of GCSEs. I wrote about coca-cola and we read Macbeth. I wrote something about plus-sized people and we read Pride and Prejudice. It was all about content, not skills.

This year, to get a D, you have to be able to identify, comment on and analyse the effect of various language and presentational features. You have to be able to juggle purpose, audience and genre and create something interesting and witty in 25 minutes. Then you have to do it again in 35 minutes. For a D.

Driving a car is easier. It requires fewer skills.

So, they’re not easier. They’re complex and difficult. One lovely teacher out here had to come and ask me for advice on how to interpret the syllabus. It’s ridiculous. When a qualified teacher can’t make head-nor-tail of the mark scheme, how the hell any child makes any progress is beyond me.

And for my student, it now means a reserved place in college, possibly re-sits and being a year behind schedule. It means his parents have to work another year to support him. It means disappointment and frustration. It means lowering his expectations in science and maths because he didn’t get that all-important C. By two marks.

Multiply that by twenty students and you’ve got a school that’s failing. For most secondary schools, that would be a 7-10% dip in standards. An inspection is automatically generated and the school can be put in special measures with an order to pull its socks up and turn things around in a year. It means those poor Heads of English who have coped with the following things have to deal with another thing on top of that. The bleak prospect of a closing school.

And it’s their fault. Allegedly. They’ll be scrutinised beyond acceptability. Other staff blame them. Headteachers up the pressure, because something must be wrong.

And the Government can sit pretty saying ‘well, we said standards weren’t THAT good, when it’s their meddling that’s made this mess in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong. I am in favour of tests. It stops students having 11 years of library lessons and reading outloud. A certain amount of assessment makes sure that people are prepared for the education marathon. It puts down milestones to achieve, so you know where you’re going to come in the race. You know, if you run a six-minute mile, where you’re going to end up. And if you run a ten-minute mile, you know how hard you have to run, too. If you’re a six-minute miler, a milestone means you don’t end up dawdling at ten-minute miles for twenty miles, and then trying to make up the last six miles at a sprint.

But this is the reality of how that education marathon has been in English education. Change after change after change. Tinkering, tinkering, changing and tinkering.

And despite it all, teachers have continued to get it right. Results have gone up. Not because it’s easier. Do people run the 100 m in less than 10 seconds because it’s easier these days? Will one day the 9.5 second barrier be broken? And then the 9? Of course it will. Just as the 4 minute mile was broken and is now 3 minutes 43.

But keep changing the content, keep changing the track, keep saying ‘right, now do it in clogs’, just because governments feel the need to seem as if they’re doing something, when really, they’re doing nothing at all, that’s awful.

The problem is there are still problems. Standards haven’t slipped. Yet more and more children are disenfranchised, rude, disaffected, awkward, taking drugs, drinking, smoking. Teenage pregnancy is a huge problem. There’s a generation of children who failed at school and are filling up the job centres. Youth unemployment is at an all-time high. So-called ‘NEET’ (not in Education, Employment or Training) figures go up and up and up as our children drop out and go on jobseekers’ allowances. So whilst the government tinker with targets, 1 in 5 children fall off the radar and become next year’s teenage mums, hard-core unemployed or criminals, paid for by the tax payer. And that figure is rising. They eat badly, they smoke, they binge drink. They become health problems. They need mental health support. They need financial support. They need parenting support. Their children follow the same paths. They consume massive amounts of time and resources and we still haven’t worked out a way to stop that happening.

So let’s not take the wind out of the sails of our talented youths, the Tom Daleys of the world, the Samantha Murrays of the world, let’s stop tinkering and leave education alone whilst we sort out the social crisis.

Maybe then, fewer teachers like me would quit the profession.

Because that’s what’s happening. This summer, three former colleagues have opted out and gone for a life like mine. It’s too much to bear the problems of society on your own shoulders when every single person is saying ‘this is your fault’, instead of remembering that most kids are alright, most kids are fab.

But, dare I say it, this is what you get when you tinker and tinker and tinker and use league tables as a goal.

Yes, the government will blame the exam boards, but let’s not forget that government ministers sit on GCSE syllabuses til the last minute, sometimes meaning courses have to start before the government have signed off on them. Yes, that happens. And they also like to let things fail completely by giving them to those who don’t have the capacity to deliver in order to get rid of them. See what happened with the KS3 exams. Dare I say the government engineer failure just so they can change things yet again?

And that’s why I won’t teach in schools any more. I can’t stand the tinkering and then the blame game, the league tables and the threat, the Joe-90s and the unsupportive head teachers. It’s not for me. It gives me a headache even thinking about it.

Now… to console a 16 year old boy who’s ended up a pawn in a political game…

What fun.

I’m sure the news is consolation to him.

The Independent

The Guardian

The Telegraph

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4 thoughts on “And here’s the fast lane

  1. Shit. Poor kid. I am sure you will know the words to use, but for me at that age a few role models that you can identify with would be good. I have been tremendously impressed by several of our clients this year who have told me they are dyslexic. These people are energetic and successful (not just in financial terms, but as well rounded people). One of them (a chemist) told me about failing an important exam at university. He was able to negotiate with a sympathetic professor – who knew he could do better – and took the exam again verbally.

  2. What an interesting piece. I am a teacher, having spent an idyllic summer at our house in Charente, back in the Lake District, with a training day to look forward to tomorrow. We are on the cusp of taking a deep breath and moving…

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