Are GCSEs ‘fit for purpose’? – a teacher’s perspective

So, Mr Gove got what he wanted then! Well, that’s the conspiracy theory isn’t it? The examination boards were leant on to move grade boundaries so Mr Gove could claim standards are falling, teachers are doing a bad job and more and more academies are needed. I’m not one for conspiracy theories but as education in this country is a political football, I wouldn’t put it past our Führer. Indeed, right on cue, even before students has actually got their GCSE results, came the right-wing media ‘standards are slipping’ pieces knocked up by Louise Mensch wannabes about how teachers fail those in their charge – despite the journos not having been in a classroom since their time in finishing school. It must be true then. Despite working our backsides off to help those in our care we’re still useless, lazy and need to be taken over by the private sector to be in any way efficient. It would of course be churlish to mention at this point such ‘success stories’ as G4S and Southern Cross and their wonderful track record when outsourced!

Anyway, I digress. When will this country get over its obsession with the perception that teachers are lazy? At an Academy I was recently in whilst waiting for my new permanent post to start all I saw were teachers working too hard, close to breaking point, worried about losing their job if they weren’t seen to be toeing the line or working hard enough. I was the only one the whole faculty with children of my own so when I left ‘early’ to get home after the long commute to spend some time with them I became persona non grata. I was glad to be on a temporary contract! Teachers do most of their work at home as we know, away from prying eyes and the ‘factory system’. In my ten years of teaching I wish I had been paid for all of the unmeasured overtime I have put in. But we don’t do it for the money do we…? With Mr Gove’s current offensive and it’s evident aim of demoralising everyone in the profession, it is just as well that we certainly don’t do it for the praise either!

Why should GCSE grades go up every year anyway?  It is surely ludicrous to think that this is possible as students are all very different year on year. Why is there no focus on such measures as value-added? Some schools may get impressive GCSE results on paper, but when socio-economic factors and previous attainment are considered, these results become very impressive. Figures need to show what each teacher has actually done with each student. And therein lies the problem – if you have a very bright, able intake with high expectations who could get A* in their sleep, you are seen as a brilliant teacher when in fact you probably haven’t had to do as much as if you have got ‘average’ students up to A*. I’ve always been proud to have helped my students to very good GCSEs or IGCSEs wherever I have taught but I am still against performance-related pay for this very reason – the actual performance of the teacher is not – and more importantly cannot be – measured.

We get INSET on assessment for learning, formative assessment, continuous assessment, controlled assessment… but what is effective assessment? We are so bogged down by data, we are danger of losing track of seeing the actual individual in front of us. The saturation of data, most of it pointless, means we are less educators than administrators. It is funny that when teaching Stalin’s Russia to Sixth Formers even they can see the futility of targets and the measures people go to to meet them. This is seen in other walks of life too – look at the North Staffs Hospital where some areas were totally neglected so other areas of the hospital could meet their targets. Whatever hoop the government gives us, we will jump through. We are professionals and will obey our paymasters… its Emperor’s New Clothes and it doesn’t work. You want us to get all our students to get A-C – fine, we’ll do it. I feel for those poor Year 11s, many of which now start their GCSEs in Year 9 who basically have a whole year of revision and being told how these are the most important examinations in their life etc etc over and over again in assembly, tutor time and in all those after school sessions. And even the recently introduced controlled assessment can be got round – I’ve been in an Academy where all students were marched into the hall and given a power point on exactly what to write. No-one seemed concerned about such blatant cheating- in fact the Principal had sanctioned it because of course he was under pressure to hit his targets. Hey presto! Your school gets 100% A*-C – brilliant! But are your students actually better educated? Or does it show they can repeat parrot fashion the facts that the exam boards want them to remember. Where is the scope for creative learning or that most overused of vacuous clichés – ‘thinking outside the box’?

We hear so much about whether or GCSEs are ‘fit for purpose’. Well, what is their purpose? Surely they are there to give students a basic balanced education before they start to specialise from the age of 16. This has been lost in League Table culture as the results become the be all and end all of everything – and as I have said earlier this has led to spoon-feeding and teaching to the exam. Having picked up some Edexcel textbooks recently for my new permanent position, I was shocked to see such blatant teaching to the exam. The teacher hardly has to do anything – perhaps that is the point. The content is at least half of what it used to be and it is all bitesize, bullet point information. How does this stretch the able? How does this allow students to learn for the joy of learning? It encourages students to pick up and use soundbites and expect to be given the answer rather than working towards it themselves. Again, perhaps this is what the government wants – we are, after all, led by spin-driven soundbites…

National Curriculum Levels are the same. My 8 year old son and my 10 year old nephew can tell you straight away what level they are at in English, Maths and Science – but what does this actually mean? As a parent I get pages and pages of level descriptors – which I skip and go straight to the very small paragraph that the teacher has written free text about my son. Levels are preferable to percentages though – this was the way we did it when I taught abroad in a heavily South African influenced school.  Trying to move the mind set from percentages to levels was hard as students just wanted to know their percentage in a certain subject. Ask them what that actually meant though and they would struggle. At least levels allow more explanation and analysis than pure factual recall.

I’m aware I haven’t really given a solution to the problem of effective assessment – but then I’d argue that education needs to be more than a series of assessments, assessments which are only used politically anyway. Because of League Tables we will never get a meritocracy – League tables don’t really show anything unless they are thoroughly analysed and approached with background information. I’d argue we need use measures  that are more reflective of the actual work the teacher has put in and the actual achievement of the student. While exam boards are profit making entities we are far from this and while the pressure is on to get your students good results for the League Tables’ sake rather than the students’ sake we are a long way from effective reflective assessment.

Joe Wilkinson, September 2012

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