I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about how, despite our best efforts, we are failing the students who need us most.
On 17 September 2012 Michael Gove addressed the Commons regarding the new GCSEs: “We expect that everyone who now sits a GCSE should sit this new qualification, but there will of course be some students who will find it difficult to sit the exams, just as there are some students who do not sit GCSEs at the moment. We will make special—indeed, enhanced—provision, for those students, with their schools being required to produce a detailed record of their achievement in each curriculum area.”
For the past three months I have been teaching two small groups of students who require additional support to access the new English and mathematics GCSEs. They are not quite the students Michael Gove had in mind when he said that some students “will find it difficult to sit the exams”; rather, they are the students in the academic tier above our SEND students, the ones who have never quite engaged with their studies, the ones who rarely do any school work beyond the school day, the ones who find GCSEs a genuine struggle.
I have been teaching these students a systematic approach to the 40 mark writing questions on the AQA English Language GCSE papers. The students find it difficult to summon up the ideas to write very much, but by giving them a simple structure for planning their writing, they have begun to extend their answers and produce respectable responses which should claim at least half of the 40 marks on offer.
I began a lesson a few weeks ago by asking Jordan to take us through the systematic approach to the writing question on the English Language GCSE paper 1. The conversation went something like this:
Me: “OK. You are in the exam room, you are on question 5, the writing question. Jordan, what’s the first thing you do?”
Jordan: “Don’t know. Can’t remember.” (Jordan grins at the other students sat around the table in my office.)
Me: “Jordan! I can’t believe you are smiling. You seem proud to have forgotten what I have taught you. I was at a private school conference yesterday. No one in a private school would be proud to have forgotten what they have been taught.”
Stephen: “But we don’t go to a private school, do we?”
(Names have been changed.)
At that point – and just for a split second – I descended into a paroxysm of despair. The students were oblivious to my anguish. A deep breath later and we went through, again, our systematic approach to the writing question…
We have a cohort of students going through our new GCSES in English and mathematics for whom the increased challenge was introduced mid-stream. Those students have not developed from early primary school the depth of vocabulary, the confident dexterity to manipulate number and the deliberate memory skills to meet this increased challenge. The single tiered English GCSEs have been particularly challenging.
Consequently, some of our students are voting with their feet. We have had to instigate a highly efficient system for ensuring all our students make it into school to take the examinations, which includes texting parents, a mini-bus and a team of staff who go early-morning knocking on the doors of our most reluctant Year 11s.
Predictably, the only student who has persistently failed to turn up to take his examinations, despite our daily visits to his house, is Jordan.
As Michael Gove suggested we might, we have made “special—indeed, enhanced—provision” for Jordan, but the “record of [his] achievement in each curriculum area” will be pretty thin. And that leaves me with an overwhelming sense of failure.
Heartbreaking is the reticence towards success which Jordan and the many others we teach display. Behaviour and attitude as highlighted but ultimately don’t want to fail. They know it’s hard and they just can’t comprehend working to not ‘pass’. I hate the system for not allowing students to feel success or that they could actually feel some success if they tried or turned up. Yet we all know they feel doom towards terminal assessments, as do we. I do hope Jordan and the others find their paths despite not hitting the prized five and find joy in life.
Also a big thank you to you John, and the many teachers across the land, for endlessly persevering and always championing all students and especially young people like Jordan. It’s tough but ultimately we do everything we can.
I think we all have versions of this story. I teach two Year 11 classes and in my 21 years of teaching I’ve never worked so hard to prep them for the exams. The pupils who are below average ability have really struggled, either to keep up with the sheer number of texts or to keep themselves motivated. Pupils who would have achieved D grades under the old syllabus have plummeted to 2s because they can’t be bothered. It’s too difficult and no amount of interleaving, fun tests and spoon feeding can compensate.
Another great piece, John. Your commitment to your pupils – and to ongoing reflection on what helps them to learn – is utterly admirable. I find your list of the skills and attitudes that young people need in order to learn extremely helpful. My question to you and the Roundtable then is how such clear criteria are communicated to policy makers. I was in the room when you were gathering points to raise with Gove at a special audience you had been granted. I was sceptical then about what you could achieve even though I know you/the sector has no choice but to engage with these arrogant and ignorant monarchs for a day. I think the sector needs to agree criteria and principles like your list here and use assertiveness technique (or, if you like, Crosbie-style communication methods) and repeat repeat repeat them in writing and face to face to the effect that “we will only engage in this discussion if the following principles agreed by the profession are the reference points.” Perhaps you are already doing this?
As an experienced SENCO I can echo your despair, though if I wilfully ignore the unattainable content of GCSE s then I have a slim chance of supporting our most challenging students through at least a partly appropriate education.