This much (I think) I know about…the English Language GCSE debacle!

I have been a teacher of English for 24 years and a Headteacher for 9 years and at the age of 48 this much (I think) I know about the English Language GCSE debacle.

The Roman playwright Terence wrote, Nothing is said that has not been said before. I apologise now if what follows does not illuminate further the English Language GCSE debacle for you.

The issue is very clear. The examination was utterly fair. We have become increasingly good at educating our students to pass examinations – arguably the most important thing we are charged to do. When they added up the figures too many students were going to get A*-C grades in English Language GCSE and the political pressure from Gove to suppress grades was so implicit it was explicit. In a year when it is likely that single-board contracts for individual subjects will go out to tender, none of the boards could afford to raise the A*-C pass rate compared to last year for the subject with the most lucrative single-board contract – English. The only answer was to raise the grade boundaries. The January examination entry is almost a red-herring; they would have had to raise the grade boundaries significantly even if we had all entered the June examination. That would have been fairer, but we would still be in a huge row. In the end we were too good at our job.

State school teachers are better than they have ever been. With specimen papers and mark schemes a good teacher can train students how to pass the examination. I prepared two Year 11 GCSE groups for this year’s January AQA English Language GCSE examination, a high ability group of 30 students and a group of 13 boys on the C/D borderline. We were focused like never before on how to answer the examination and did all the things good schools do. The results in January were good – not remarkable – and, in grade terms, exactly what we predicted for 95%+ of the students across the whole school cohort. We did a great job for those students.

OFQUAL’s report damages all of us. Two years ago our students attained 68% A*-C grades in English Language GCSE; with a number of hands-on highly effective and sometimes bloody interventions we attained 77% last year and 83% this year. Glenys Stacey now says we were lucky, an individual who has never taught a GCSE student in her life. Even Anthony Seldon branded OFQUAL’s actions insensitive.

The English GCSE row is very difficult for the general public to understand. Marking exams and grading exams are terms used interchangeably by everyone outside of the profession. Once understood, my mother-in-law thought norm-referencing a good thing as long as it didn’t apply to her grandsons; my father-in-law thought grade suppression a good thing because when he was in business too many youngsters were virtually illiterate. It’s not their fault. It just means that those responsible at the DfE, OFQUAL and the examination boards can get away with it.

OFQUAL failed in their core responsibilities: OFQUAL is responsible for maintaining standards, improving confidence and distributing information about qualifications and examinations. How, then, did OFQUAL not notice that the January 2012 grade boundaries were too generous until August 2012?

I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but doesn’t this mess play into Gove’s hands? He can reappear in October, when Glenys Stacey has taken the rap and resigned, and restore order with norm-referenced O levels. And if you wanted to believe they are really clever, he can now force hundreds more schools to become academies as a result of them dropping below the floor standards.

Norm referencing is a close cousin of the fixed intelligence family. I spend my whole working life encouraging students and staff to adopt a growth mindset in a healthy environment where they can thrive, and government policy hurtles chaotically towards a world which militates against such an approach.

If we return officially to norm referencing why would I help a school next door? Every student in my neighbouring school I help push over the C/D borderline reduces the chance of one of my students securing a grade C. Working as a Local Leader of Education (LLE) will require principled values-led selfless leadership like that seen never before.

In some ways we have to look to next year. The energy some Headteacher colleagues are expending in challenging this summer’s English Language GCSE results will mean that they return to school exhausted and dispirited. At some point we will all have to turn our attention to next year’s cohort of examinees before things begin to fray.

I have a sense that the examination system may be fatally damaged by this summer’s debacle. So next year I will support my colleagues by asking them to trust in their professional judgement and do what they consider is the very best for our students. If the examination boards and OFQUAL then change the rules of the game at least we will know, as always, that we have done all we can for those in our trust.

About johntomsett

Headteacher in York. All views are my own.
This entry was posted in General educational issues. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to This much (I think) I know about…the English Language GCSE debacle!

  1. The point about norm referencing and helping other schools is a really important one. It is exactly the type of corrosive competitiveness that Gove wants – the dream of every free marketeer like Gove his pals – Murdoch et al. We should continue to fight relentlessly so the children in our care continue to do brilliantly – as they have done as shown by the improvements in the last two years – but we must also cooperate with our fellow schools to fight this patently rigged game. I will not let Gove and his cronies compromise my cooperative values.

  2. Pingback: The Learning Spy - GCSE English – why shouldn’t all have prizes?

  3. Pingback: GCSE marking debate: the toughest questions have yet to be asked | IOE London blog

  4. Angela says:

    I agree that norm referencing for GCSE is corrosive and stupid – it tells us nothing about the absolute ability or knowledge that students have. If we just want a ranking of exam skills, we could use IQ tests. But to claim this is a ‘free market’ system is wrong. It is precisely the opposite – the norm referencing is imposed by government for political reasons. Genuinely free market examinations (eg business and independent vocational qualifications) tend to be quite different – criterion-referenced – if a student can demonstrate a certain level of knowledge or understanding, they get the grade -regardless of how many others do so. This is more efficient – from a free market point of view, what an employer is interested in is whether you can do the job, not whether you were first in your class. Look for instance at ECDL and other British Computer Society qualifications. There are some some circumstances where the free market wants rankings, and this is always made explicit and students are given percentiles as well as scores. What’s insidious about norm-referencing with national exams like the GCSE is that it pretends to be one thing – a measure of subject knowledge – but delivers another – a ranking in exam skills.

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