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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