As GCSE result’s day once again approaches for thousands of young people, I personally approach it with even more trepidation than usual. As a teacher, having taught GCSE for over 20 years, for the first time ever this feels like entering the almost unknown. This is mainly because with the inclusion of coursework we could predict a minimum level of achievement, and have confidence that the students had enough marks they could potentially do very well indeed. Whereas, with 100% examinations I am not certain my students have performed at their very best on the actual day. It has been a roller-coaster ride implementing the new English GCSE. There have been none of the previous benchmarks that been used for predictions. No coursework, no controlled assessments and no grade boundaries. Ultimately, this has left students, as well as staff at all levels, in the dark where grades are allocated.
Results day 2017 is also unique for me because this is is my first experience as a parent. My eldest son will also be among those getting their GCSE results this year. To be honest, it is his Maths that he is most worried about. He was, pre the new system, targeted an A and now is hoping and praying for a low boundary so he can scrape a grade 4! I get the impression he is happy to just ‘pass’, whereas I am hoping for him to have done as well as he possibly could. This is also something schools and parents have to appreciate, the students have felt under so much pressure, their perspective have altered. Consequently, so should ours.
In English, having tutored my son and a few of his friends for the past three years, my informed professional opinion is that he could get anything from a grade 5 to a grade 8 depending upon the question and the examiner. How are teachers expected to make ‘accurate’ predictions about their classes of thirty? With the many variants associated with the GCSEs, it has become a lottery as to whether they get a poem, extract, exam question they feel confident with, and then have an examiner who can recognise and reward their interpretation. Where we used to motivate students by showing them their achievements in their coursework, we now have to find a new approach to instil confidence and self-esteem in our students. With this in mind, we need to change the way we ‘predict’ and ‘target set’.
A culture of penalising staff for dips in results has become the norm. Teaching, as a profession, needs to reflect on this practice in light of these new examinations. Heads can not roll because of a dip in results. In the current climate in teaching is there really any mileage in using individuals as scapegoats? It is going to come to a point where there is no one left who is willing or able to take on such a role. The latest statistic is that 66% teachers working abroad are British. We need to create a climate in our profession where people want to stay. Using a system that was created by the government, with minimal input from the teaching profession, cannot be used against individuals when it is not successful. This is especially the case when it has been explicitly designed to ensure a high proportion of our students fail. The people at the ‘chalk face’ have weathered the storm of the new exams. It is never easy implementing a new system, and this one has been particularly difficult because of the speed at which it was implemented as well as the vast differences in the approach of the exam boards in comparison to previous years. The ‘punishment’ needs to stop. Teachers need time to reflect on their practice and create strategies that will inspire and motivate the next set of students.
Another concern of mine is the attitude that previous years had been ‘too easy’ for students. Having a system where students have the means to access the curriculum and use a variety of skills to work towards a qualification should be celebrated. We need a system where all students can actually achieve something at the end of eleven years! What is the point of education if students constantly feel they are perpetually underachieving to the point of almost definite failure? We are now in a situation where we force students to stay in education, whether is suits them or not. Then they must work within a system where the reality is that whole cohorts of students have no chance of ‘passing’. I know of senior teachers who feel a deep sense of hypocrisy telling students to follow a particular academic path, knowing they have very little chance of truly achieving within this current system. There were faults in the previous system, but at least the majority of students had a sense of achieving something. We must find a way of empowering our students and find them a sense of worth in the current climate.
I do worry about the future. I have another two children who are going to go through this. I have a son who is entering Y10, having started his GCSEs in Year 9. His targets are grade 9 for all subjects. This is within the context of the head of the DFE saying that only 2 students in the whole country will get all grade 9 ‘if they are lucky’. PE GCSE has very little practical sport, science has no experiments, English is just test after test for exam practice. They are all bored to death, and this is not the fault of the teachers. Some of his friends are saying they will join the army, see school through and get away as soon as they can into something where they see qualifications are not needed. Others are feel that their best option is to get a trade – and skip the GCSE and qualification aspect. These are students who entered secondary schools with level 5s. A cohort of students who only two years ago would have been expected to go to university. If this is how they are feeling as they embark on Year 10, we need to ask ourselves how their experiences can be improved. As teachers, we all need to reflect and confront where our practice could be adapted to maximise success. This is the best way to give your students a chance of making greater progress. What can be done across the school to make schooling feel more worthwhile and achievable?
Although I do appreciate that some teachers have expressed little appetite for more change. It is the future of a generation children at stake, my children’s generation. I do think there is an avenue for alleviating pressure, with minimal changes to content. We need to fight to put a proportion of the control back into the hands of the students and teachers. Ways forward include:
– January modules allowing for possible resits and managing pressure
– Turning some examination sections back into OPTIONS for coursework (NOT controlled assessments)
– Reinstating practical components – for example Speaking and Listening with marks that go towards the final GCSE
Everything English Education has a proven track record of success in teacher training and working with students. We are independent and without affiliation to any examination boards or companies and we can give you impartial advice about the best ways forward for your staff and students. If your English results have not gone as expected, please get in touch, we can support you in ensuring future success.