I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about how examination boards are making the teacher recruitment and retention crisis worse.
This conversation happened yesterday afternoon between me and Laura, one of our brightest and best, incredibly dedicated young teachers. She teaches the OCR Cambridge National Certificate in Health & Social Care, Levels 1/2. I was walking the school during the last lesson of the week, visiting every Year 11 class to offer support to teachers and students. Laura was coming out of her office – she is a House Pastoral Leader – and I just asked her how things were going…
Me: ‘Hi Laura, how are things going?’
Laura: ‘Oh fine, I’m just a bit stressed.’
Me: ‘Stressed or under pressure?’
Laura: ‘Oh, it’s fine, it’s just this Health & Social Care marking. I’ve got 29 pieces of coursework to mark on this new spec and the exam board have sent us no exemplars. Nothing. There is nothing to help us mark this coursework. I have been on the chat rooms in the evening trying to find someone who might mark with me, but the closest person I can find is in Cumbria. She said, “Yes, come over to me and we’ll work together”, but I haven’t got time to go across there at the weekend. So, I am desperate to mark the work, but I don’t feel confident that I know what the difference is between “Basic”, “Sound” and “Thorough” – especially between “Basic” and “Sound” – and when you ring the board to ask for help they make you feel like you are cheating.’
Me: ‘That’s outrageous.’
Laura: ‘Do you want to see what I have to do?’
Laura then took me to her classroom, where piles of coursework were strewn across every table, and showed me what she has to mark. She has 29 students’ work to assess, having to write comments to justify her marks in 7 boxes for each student. That is 203 separate comments with minimal, if any, support from OCR. Page after page of assessment descriptors without any exemplar materials to help Laura, and her colleagues across the country, make accurate interpretations of what on earth the descriptors mean:
And when Laura talked me through the coursework and showed me the descriptors it was even worse, because at least one of the descriptors was quite confused:
‘Some’ is quantitative; ‘minor’ is qualitative; ‘few’ is quantitative’. I could misspell eight words and that would constitute ‘some’ errors, but I could misuse a comma 50 times and that would constitute 50 ‘minor’ punctuation errors. Just one spelling mistake would constitute ‘few’ spelling errors. How did this get through OFQUAL’s quality assurance mechanisms?
If we want to recruit and retain the very best teachers in our schools, the examination boards have a responsibility to stop this assessment nonsense. If we have to have descriptors, and each descriptor is linked to a certain number of marks and the teacher has to decide a best fit for the piece of work and award a specific mark accordingly, why does the teacher have to write comments to justify the marks? It is obvious that the teacher has awarded that mark because he or she thinks it meets that descriptor. If, as an examination board moderator, you want to judge whether the teacher has awarded a mark accurately, read the student’s work, not the teacher’s commentary, because the commentary will just mirror the descriptor.
We have to keep the Lauras of our teaching world in our schools. Our Laura works tirelessly. Students adore her. She is brilliant in the classroom and a superb middle leader. I want her to have her weekends back. I want her to remain in the profession.
But what Laura showed me yesterday, on a wet Friday afternoon in late April, when the pressure of impending examinations is at its peak, was wholly unnecessary. As a school we are doing a great number of things to reduce teacher workload, but if the examination boards are piling the pressure on teachers through their inadequate and unnecessary assessment practices, we will continue to see the teacher recruitment and retention crisis deepen.