Monthly Archives: September 2012

GCSE English Fiasco… some personal thoughts and developments

There are time when as a teacher your head spins. Times when you feel as if you’re paddling frantically just to keep still. On some occasions, however hard you paddle, however frenetically your feet beat against the current, you feel yourself slowly slipping backwards and the sound of the weir or waterfall at your back just gets louder and LOUDER and more and more insistent.

And these are the rhythms and ebb and flow of the school year. We all know the feeling – unless it’s just my utter inadequacy I’m confessing here! We could look at:

• the first weeks of September with a hundred new names to learn, results to analyse, new class dynamics to negotiate, new traumas to heal between students…

• those days when, unthinkingly, all your classes are handing in long homeworks at the same time – which I know careful planning and forethought could avoid!

• those lovely weeks when parents evenings pile up on options evenings and pathways evenings and twilight Inset…

• moderation and OMRs and estimated grades form to be completed. In triplicate.

• the end of the year when reports and grades and key stage levels and target grades and end of year exam results all need to be compiled.

This year, however, the GCSE English debacle has spun my head so far I feel like Linda Blair in The Exorcist.

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One of the best analogies I have heard about the “situation” – I’m struggling to find some way to describe any of this without using words like fiasco, farce or blunder or, to be frank, the phrase cock up – it would be almost funny this level of incompetence if 1000s of kids’ futures weren’t at stake! – was from Radio 4. Imagine an orchard full of lovely ripe apples. Imagine you and your friends go to pick apples on Saturday but find that another group of kids broke in the night before and have already taken most of those bright juicy sweet apples. There are therefore less for you and your friends who waited and most of you are having to content yourselves with the dry shrivelled old windfall apples.

However, if we stick with the analogy, if we were in Wales – and only in Wales – the Government will refresh those windfall apples for you. They will be plumped up, re-juiced, rejuvenated, buffed and bronzed. Which can only make the wizened old things that the English kids are left with as bitter as a crab apple!

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Now, I applaud Leighton Andrews for his stance ordering WJEC to regrade it’s GCSEs for Welsh students. Thousands of Welsh teenagers will now get the grade they deserve. Brilliant!

But this does not help my head! Not at all!

Children with the same raw scores in every piece of Controlled Assessment and in their examination – possibly living less than a mile apart – possibly best friends – possibly even related – on opposite sides of the Welsh border – get different grades?!

Was this what was envisaged when powers were devolved to Wales? Seriously?

Predictably, our Mr Gove has decried Leighton Andrews decision. Why? Because it points the brightest most penetrating spotlight possible on his own unfair refusal to do the same? Oh no, silly me. Because it was “irresponsible”.

Anecdotally, it seems this year that a number of post-16 providers may have been very understanding and accepted students with a lower-than-expected GCSE grade. I stress that I have absolutely no evidence beyond anecdote to support this. Some research into this might be useful…

But this, in my view, will not be the crucial year for these kids. Fast forward 18 months or so. This debacle will have inevitably slid from people’s consciousness. This same cohort of kids will be applying for University or employment. Their CVs will still have a D grade in English on. Universities and prospective employers will still be looking for a C grade as evidence of sufficient literacy to access their course or to carry out their responsibilities. And whatever leeway may have been offered this year is very unlikely to be applied then.

Geoff Barton and the ASCL seem to me to be doing a grand job on two fronts:

• both Geoff Barton and Brian Lightman are keeping this in the public eye, maintaining awareness and keeping up the pressure; and

• looking at the ASCL’s website, there are some genuinely imaginative and creative proposals being put forward to remedy the injustice.

Pushing for a relaxation of the 20th of September deadline for EARs – Enquiries About Results – seems to me to be a sensible move. This is a complicated situation for Heads, Senior Leadership Teams and teachers to ponder, let alone parents. There are, according to the JCQ rules, three routes to consider:

1) a clerical recheck in case there are errors in adding up or pages in the scripts that didn’t get read. Save for exceptional individuals, this is unlikely to help anyone. I know the fiasco has dented trust in exams but I am broadly confident that they can add up. It’s what they do to those marks I’m worried about!

2) a remarking of the examination script. A number of parents have already requested this and – in my school at least – without any changes being made. There is nothing in the results to suggest that the marking was incorrect. Again, it is the manipulation of those marks to create a UMS score and a grade that’s the problem;

3) an appeal against the moderation of Controlled Assessments. Now if a school’s CA marks have been reduced – just to compound the problems with the grading – this seems sensible. It might raises the couple of marks needed to cross the grade threshold. But my school – along with most schools because, let’s face it, teachers can mark! It’s our job! We do it well! – has had no change. We are within tolerance. To appeal against moderation which has accepted our marks is to appeal against our own marking! Who knows what effect that might have on the size of sample requested in future years and the relationship we’ve spent a decade building up with our Examination Board! And it seems dishonest.

ASCL are apparently insisting that boards relax the rules about appealing CA marking. Their argument seems to me that teachers were led to believe that a certain mark represented a grade and now that the boundaries are altered our marking has been invalidated. But, I don’t mark with grades. I mark with numbers. Demonstration of a certain set of skills equates to a number. If Ofqual permit marks to be changed to reflect a fair grade by divorcing them from the skills criteria, I’ll eat my hat!

If this is the fudge that lets kids get the grade they deserve whilst allowing Gove to remain firm about regrading, then so be it. It’s a practical solution. But it’s not marking. It would be – and there is no other word for it – a fudge and indicative of the chaos Gove and Ofqual have created.

I do have one problem with ASCL’s advice. It seems that they are inviting schools to submit vast numbers of scripts for remarking to mark our outrage. I’m sorry, Brian Lightman, but I don’t want to do that. I don’t want my kids given the false hope that this would generate. I don’t want any more political games played with my kids grades. Remarking can always result in a lowering of the mark and if that happened to one kid it would pile injustice upon injustice.

By all means, inundate exam boards with long detailed submissions about this fiasco, append reams of kids good quality Controlled Assessment that has been wrongly labelled a D, copy everything to Ofqual and your MP, sign the epetition but, please, no more games with kids’ futures!

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Teacher Bashing

Related to, but separate from, the GCSE English row – according to Ofqual’s report 42% of all schools nationwide have reported results in excess of 10% worse than expected in June 2012 –

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there is a huge culture of what could be called ‘teacher bashing‘ in the media and Government focussing primarily around the following three characters:

Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove

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Chief Inspector of Schools and Head of Ofsted, Michael Wilshaw

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and our Prime Minister, David Cameron.

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What a delightful Shakespearean Three Witches these could make! “Fair is foul and foul is fair“… Which brings us back around to the GCSE C grades again!

Certainly many leading teachers’ unions – notably the NUT – have observed and decried the media and Governmental rhetoric of failure and blame that it levelled at teachers. And it genuinely is hard to think of any other profession that is so frequently and so venomously derided in our national papers! And there is a nice piece in the Guardian here calling for Gove to resist this “declinist narrative”.

So I figured it might be interesting, informative and or depressing to just record as many examples as I can find over the next few weeks as we all return to school.

We can start just today with

1st September 2012, Telegraph “Bad teachers ‘blight children’s futures’ warns Gove” is reported here

And David Cameron’s comments in the Mail on Sunday today 2nd September 2012 here. The full text of which can be read here.

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And Michael Wilshaw waded into the GCSE uproar with this saying that

The teaching’s often not good enough, the leadership often isn’t good enough, and the progress and the outcomes of children aren’t good enough

Click here for a video of his performance on The Andrew Marr Show.

I don’t imagine I’ll be able to record or link to every example of coverage in the media that denigrates, undermines or devalues the profession but I’ll try to keep an eye on things. Any links that you guys want to point out that I may miss, please comment and point me in the right direction!

Word Of The Week, Bear

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Please bare with us while we undergo renovations

read the sign in the shop window. Imagine my disappointment when, entering the shop and slowly stripping off, no-one joined in!

And the police were called.

And cautions given.

Apparently, according to the judge, the sign should not have been read as either invitation, request or instruction

Not a true story!

But when the lovely Mrs P. asks how to spell “bear” as in “bear with me”, it is an image that flashes through my mind!

And it is a totally understandable confusion: bear is so strongly linked with its homonym of bear the animal, the ursidae in their Latin name

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that it just doesn’t feel right to use it in other contexts.

And it’s use as a verb, transitive and intransitive, to mean to endure or to carry something is a tad archaic now. Even though the most fundamental and primal human experience of being born is the past participle of this verb, do we even refer to a pregnant woman as bearing a child? Even though I remember my grandmother complaining that my uncle had married a woman

past child-bearing age

it sounds rather Victorian and squeamish and euphemistic. Nowadays, don’t we just have children rather than bear them? The intransitive connotations of the word – suggesting to endure or to suffer hardships and trials – are also rather archaic in the contexts: are children a trauma to be borne with fortitude; or a blessing to be celebrated?

Perhaps women have a different attitude. I mean, as a guy, I accept that we have it easy!

And that this is dangerous territory!

Let us move to another use which still persists: particularly in America perhaps, the right to bear arms is a cherished right. But, once again, it is a right enshrined in the Second Amendment of The Constitution in 1791 and therefore has the power of history, and is used almost ritualistically, almost fetishistically, amongst some people. But once more I fear I may be treading on dangerous ground.

And it may say an awful lot about me that I’m more afraid of the wrath of pregnant women!

To have said that the word bear is a tad archaic is literally true: the word derives from the Middle English beren and Old English beran with kinship to the same word, beran in Old High German and, with the shift between the unvoiced /f/ phonemes to the voiced /b/ over time, the Latin ferre and Greek phérein.

It is therefore – fittingly with its universal and primal sense of our being born – an ancient word whose use goes back literally beyond the rise of English as a language.