When does doing your best become cheating?

In the recent January Maths GCSE exams foundation pupils had to get 17 more marks out of 200 than they did last Summer to a get a grade ‘C’. So if they apply for a college place in a few years time and their next door neighbour, 18 months older with exactly the same Maths ability, is also applying it is likely the elder boy will get the place as this year’s student will have a lower GCSE grade. This whole situation was better explained that I could manage by William Stewart in the TES this week

Yet at the same time the schools are under ever increasing pressure to get more of their pupils the magic 5 A* – C (Including English and Maths). It is like the government is both turning up the heat and pushing down on the saucepan lid at the same time. I mean, we may squeeze out some more ‘C’ grades in the short term, but sooner or later the pot will explode. This is not a sustainable situation. Schools have a choice; head teachers have an important decision to make. Do they continue to play the game to curry favour with their overseers? Or do they come clean and take the honest and truthful path by bravely stepping away from the present day preoccupation with data, predicted grades, FFT and headline figures?

I am not a member of SLT and am no longer a governor, so that dilemma is not mine. But I can tell you what it looks like from the classroom. This Year’s Year 11 are already more dead on their feet than I have ever seen, they are more concerned, stressed and pale looking than before – and its only April. They have been entered early to Maths in January. If they get their predicted grades then they stop studying that subject, and if they didnt they can take the exam again.

For English there is another wheeze that the Guardian’s Secret Teacher pointed out. I am not an English teacher, so please read it to get a proper grasp of what is going on. But the short of it is that someone has found out that one exam board syllabus is easier to get a grade ‘C’ at so it is worth entering your ‘D’ grade students into that one.

Now I bet you that if you asked a head teacher in a school that was trying one or other (or possibly even both) of these schemes, then they would tell you that they are only doing the best for themselves. Others might question whether that headline figure of 5 A* – C including English and Maths might have something to do with it. After all with a higher figure, schools will have a better chance of either delaying an OFSTED inspection or getting a higher grade in one. so why wouldn’t you consider it?

One problem with this approach is that it is undermining the importance of other subjects that are not English and Maths. Teachers of these subjects are feeling less valued and presumably pupils are looking at the subjects in the same way.

But that is not my point. I want to know what effect this is all having on these 15 and 16 year olds. If English is so important, what are the A, B, E, F and G students thinking as they see some of their peers getting extra time and help in this key subject? If Maths is so crucial to their futures, why is not worth the whole year group re-taking? Pupils know what is going on, they can see that a GAME IS BEING PLAYED HERE.

And it is being played with them. Secret teacher is right, they are being reduced to statistics. They don’t count as actual people. Teachers have been moaning at Michael Gove for this. But how can schools claim the moral high ground, when the pressures pupils are increasingly under play second fiddle to getting the right set of results for only of their pupils? This isn’t playing fair or clean; it is playing the system.

But worse, if all the pupils know that some are being entered for an exam as it is easier to get a ‘C’ grade in that syllabus, then  how can we hold ourselves and our school up as a paragon of virtue? And what are we telling our young people about how to get on in life? Is success at something so vital that all rules must be bent and loop holes exploited? Is the only way to get on in life to sneak your way to where you want to be? Does doing your best include not getting caught at cheating?

The way it looks to me is that we are educating children to see the world as somewhere where your own success is more vital than how you achieve it, that winning at all costs isn’t such a bad way of living. We are creating a generation of people who wont mind pulling a fast one on someone else to get what they want. It is up to schools, to teachers, to governors and to head teachers to take a moral stance. Otherwise we are not doing our job properly.

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As a Geography teacher I disagree with the EBacc

So schools are measured on 5 A*-A  including English and Maths and this has turned into the EBacc. One of these five has to be a humanity of either History or Geography, but not RS. This should mean more people choosing Geography GCSE and therefore a higher profile for my subject. You would think I would be delighted.

I am not.

Pupils need a rounded and full education, one they can engage with and want to be a part of; one that excites and helps them grow into useful, thoughtful and caring adults. If you give people a choice based on a 50 year old society full of dates and capital cities, grammar tests and recall, then there will be much less engagement with learning and as a result many more adults in future years with less to offer society. A restrictive curriculum that interests only a minority is a backward step.

Additionally, the prioritising of some subjects over others divides the staff room and creates an unnecessary heirarchy in schools. Most staff begin to realise that because the government doesn’t rate their subject as important as others neither does OFSTED. And if OFSTED values it less, so will headteachers, and if the school cares less for your subject that will seep through to pupils and parents.  So you are left on the fringes.

This is happening to Geography even tough we are within the magical Ebacc ring fence. Pupils are taken out of our lessons for extra maths and English revision classes. They miss content and teaching they rarely care to catch up on. There is no recourse “It is best for the pupil.” we are told. Or even worse, “You should plan for this sort of thing, pupils missing lessons before your exam is no reason why your results arent as good as they should have been. It is your responsibility to overcome this.”

Now if that is occurring to Geography for the benefit of English and Maths, heaven knows what is happening nationally to other more marginalised subjects. I want to be part of a rounded and full education system. I dont want Geography to be king or rather part of the court of ‘Queen EnglishMaths’. there are many pupils for whom my subject does not rate as important or interesting and they should be allowed to choose other subjects that are equally as valued, funded and supported as every other area in the curriculum.

If Headteachers and staff allow our curriculum to be segregated in this way then the quality of education being delivered and received, the teaching and learning in our classrooms will deteriote and morale in the staffroom will fall further. the NAHT and NUT have a joint petition on the matter if you would like to sign it then please go to http://www.ebaccpetition.org.uk

Bad Results Day

This is a very self centred post. Please excuse this.

 

This morning I went online to check the results my students had earned, only to find out that this year is without doubt the worst set of grades I have been connected with. I have never had to feel like this before as a teacher. It is as though there is nothing to clasp onto; no floor or walls to grab and save myself from falling. I have never been in on results day before, but today I had to to investigate what had happened.

I have looked at the final results my Y11 achieved and the modular results my Y10 gained. So many of them are 2 or 3 grades below where they should be and I had no idea this was going to happen. For Y11 their modular grade from 12 months ago, their coursework and their mock exams all pointed to a cohort going to achieve the results of which they were capable; with a fair sized minority on the way to surpassing their FFT suggested grades. In Y10 there should be a fair proportion of pupils likely to get A’s or B’s next summer. Their mock exams and end of unit test exam questions pointed to this group also doing well.

But that is not as it has turned out. And I don’t know how to react. I have looked at my exam board’s enhanced results service online, I have spoken to our assistant head and to the exam enquiry office for my exam board. I will hopefully be able to query the results and then maybe they will be altered. but that is a lot of results to go wrong. And badly wrong.

There could be two causes to this:

  1. The pupils underperformed
  2. The exam board made some error(s)

If it is the first, then as the only teacher of these 70-80 pupils over Y10 and 11 the fault has to be mine. If the latter, it wont be for up to 2 months until this is proven and I will have to wait until then to know if we were hard done by today. Either way, whether by me or the examiners, my pupils have been poorly treated. They deserved better grades than they have been awarded.

I am writing this blog post mainly to clear my head. This is one of the worst mornings of my professional career. I am unstuck. There is 2 weeks before term starts and longer before any remarking may be finished.

It is apparent how much of what I consider to be me is wrapped up in the label “teacher”, so when that gets called into question it isn’t just an uncertainty about how I do my job. I feel it to be a bigger query over me as a person. I have spoken previously about how OFSTED can so monumentally affect teachers and wondered why we worry so much about what they say when we don’t really respect them as an organisation. Should we even bother to chase an outstanding grade from them, when a good school taking on many new challenges for their pupils each year is outstanding whether they say so or not?

But now I have this feeling failure at doing my job, I can get a clearer picture of what it is that drives us to be measured as a successful teacher, department or school. Firstly, teaching is more than a job to most of us, it is a part of who we are and secondly we know the pupils rely on us to help them achieve their best. If there is something we are doing or not doing that hinders this, then the consequences can be far reaching.

I think that is why I feel so affected by these results.

O Levels Aren’t the Issue

Today via the Daily Mail, we learnt of the the new government policy for education at KS4. GCSEs will be replaced by something akin to O’Levels and CSE’s. As no one at all knows the detail of this idea yet, i cannot comment on the idea itself. What bugs me is the assumptions and thinking behind this proposal.

  1. Dividing the exams at 16 up into two means dividing the pupils up into two. This means saying to the 25% of those not taking the academic exams they are of less worth than the others. It is simply a cheaper, swifter and easier method by which to introduce grammar schools. It is selection. It is social division.
  2. Announcing that exams need to be more ‘rigorous’ (i.e. easier) is an insult to all pupils. I know just how hard all my pupils have worked for this year’s exams. I receive emails after 11pm  and before 7 am asking me to mark their exam answers or to clarify a point. The insinuation is that my pupils have had it easy, that they are only getting grades because of some wishy washy test that requires little effort or knowledge to pass. The fact of the matter is that these pupils will get good grades because they have worked bloody hard.
  3. I do not ‘shop around’ for an easy GCSE exam so my pupils grades are inflated. I choose a syllabus based on what is in the content and if it suits my department’s teaching styles. I am not in the business of cheating to get my classes a better grades so that I am made to look better.
  4. I see a man who is running education in England not for the benefits of the pupils in the country but for his own ideals and for his own political advancement. I see a man playing to a a certain part of the media and his own political party as he begins to jostle for position to be his party’s next leader.
  5. If all pupils now leave at 18 not 16 why is all this effort being put into exams that are superseded by what the pupil does 2 years later?
  6. 3 years ago all GCSE’s were rewritten, this year the mark schemes were altered and modular exams removed. Starting in 2013 there will be another rewrite of the syllabus. All of this means rewriting lesson plan and schemes of work each year. All these changes are coming down from national Government. Each piece of tinkering actually restricts progress in my teaching and therefore in my pupils learning, because I have to readjust to the new requirements.

So please could the Department for Education TRUST the professionals to do a good job. Please could they stop telling the country that we are not doing a good job, that we are playing the system and that too many pupils are passing exams because the exams are too easy. Please could the DfE instead work WITH teachers to improve the education and learning of ALL pupils in our state schools. There is so much fantastic work by students and by teachers that should be celebrated and shared.

Great Tip for Revision Lessons

Double GCSE lessons all of a sudden become much longer when its revision time; both for pupils and teachers. This year I have, thanks to other people’s suggestions, stumbled upon a TOP TIP for getting pupils to work more enthusiastically and work for longer.

 

In between topics or tasks give your pupils sweets.

 

They will love you and then after a couple of minutes will restart the next bit of your lesson with renewed energy and vigour.

 

This article is not in anyway sponsored by the processed sugar industry.

Sneaking SOLO into revision lessons

I have y10 and Y11 revising for the next 3 weeks lesson. To help them feel more secure in revision I will be using the same diagram to structure their learning/revision. Again this is a mixture of SOLO and GCSE level descriptors from the mark scheme. Many other SOLO practitioners seem to talk openly about SOLO in their lessons. When I first introduced the idea to my pupils I said what it was.But I have found my pupils prefer to see the structure via heir GCSE grades. So this is the diagram i shall be using. I have also suggested they could use it to to help they own revision at home.

Starting KS4 and GCSEs in Y9

This new term has felt more like a new academic year and not just a new calendar one because our Y9s are beginning their GCSE subjects. Now I am not yet sure if this is a good thing.

I like the fact that I have extra time to teach my GCSE classes. I will have nearly 30% more lessons with them. The rush to fit everything in, especially around the 25 hours I have to give to controlled assessment will be a blessing. I will not miss the overriding necessity to get stuff completed which influences the way I have planned and delivered the content of the course over the last few years. The extra time can be used in so many positive ways; deeper learning could be happening. more investigations could occur and I could move the learning in new direction more led by what enthuses the pupils and me rather than just slavishly stick to the syllabus.

In many ways it will also improve my teaching quality of life to have only the y9s who chosen my subject in my classes. After all they should be more motivated because they went for my option. (should)

And for the school as a whole the move makes sense. KS3 SATS are no more and the one measurement that matters more than any other is of course the 5 A* – C grades including English and Maths so why should we swap over to a longer KS4?

But against these three points there is a nagging noise in the back of my mind. Will learning subject content in Y9 really help pupils answer questions on those topic later 2 and a half years later? Is there any point in doing anything except skills at this stage in their learning? And will my pupils lose momentum if there is less pace to my teaching? How can a 13 year old really envisage something happening so far in the future? (its about another 20% of their life so far)

One of the reasons the change was brought in was because of all the extra exams and the increasing modularity of most GCSEs. Now of course the wind has changed and terminal exams are all.

What about those who opted NOT to do my subject? They will have nearly a 1/4 less time doing a subject that is not separately taught at most primary schools. Where is there Geographical learning going to come from? Are we selling them short by focussing on exam courses earlier?

Of course the pragmatic answer to all these questions is that this is what I have been told is going to happen and so I should make the best of it for ALL my pupils whether they elect to study the subject at KS4 or not

 

Extra thoughts

The knock on effect for the whole school is that we have two timetables a year. Our poor assistant head has had to disappear twice in the last 6 months to work out the minutiae of who gets y9 on a Friday afternoon. No one deserves to have to do that. but the double change has other impacts too. A class I was just getting to know has been taken from me. That means there is an issue of continuity and pupil support. How can the parents evening be so well informed if the teacher doesn’t yet know the names of all their pupils?

Finally I had one of my new Year 9 GCSE groups today. They were lovely. They all wanted to be there. They felt special and that their work had a new impetus because it was GCSE. We took time over a couple of the questions, deliberated over the answers, I asked more than one pupil for their opinion and they felt (I think) more valued.