Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Book Lover’s Brain

I’m going to start this post with some simple straightforward facts about me.

• I am epileptic;
• I have been epileptic since I was fourteen;
• As epileptics go, it is very mild as I have seizures just about once every three and a half years
• I am on tegretol retard – what a delightful name – which is a slow release form of carbamazepine.
• I take the Retard 200 mg twice daily.


These have generally been okay – save, in retrospect, that they seem not to have stopped my fits! – but I have been suffering badly this last week or so! I never really had much in the way of side effects but suddenly I’m feeling so tired and lethargic and head spinning!

And it feels as if I have lost a dimension! Very tricky to judge distance. I’m knocking into things. And I mean more so – noticeably more so – than previously! Letters and words on a page are moving and floating around and it’s only through an effort of will that I can fix then down long enough to read them in what I think is the right order.

Driving I have avoided.

Now I don’t know whether this vertigo and blurring and very peculiar waves of prickly heat have any connection to the Tegretol but they – and more personal effects including suicidal thoughts and ideation and Erectile Dysfunction – are listed on the side effects list on the packet.

On a couple of occasions it’s genuinely felt like I’ve been observing myself from outside.

According to the doctor the vertigo is likely to be caused by an inner ear problem – but the tablets he gave me for that literally knocked me straight out.

Where, oh where, is the logic in that?

A patient turns up complaining of fatigue so you prescribe tablets that increase fatigue?! Really?! No wonder the doctor I saw was just a locum!


Let me admit here my bias from the outset.

I love books.

Not altogether surprising in an English teacher. Or in light of previous blog content. Or in light of the name of my blogs!

But I do.

The Hobbit by Tolkien was the first book that gripped me. And writing in general has never let me free of its grips. Books kept me sane through the long interminable holidays I was forced to go on with my parents – canal boating – cramped up in a 65 foot space with brother, parents, occasional other family members with no space to escape except into the books I had brought with me. Books gave me an escape from worries about money. Books have taught me and nourished me and protected me.

As a teacher, the biggest horror I face is that population (sadly ever growing) of kids who can read but who choose not to. For whom reading is just “too much effort,” “too long,” too hard, “too boring”. There are no graphics! It takes perhaps weeks for them reach a moment of high tension in a book whereas their Calls of Duty and Modern Warfares can give them the same thrill every seven minutes in handy fun-sized pieces.

So it was that I surveyed my Year 9 group. A bottom set. I surveyed them all with a sinking feeling: I knew these kids; I had taught some of them in one capacity or another for both their previous years in the school. I quickly surveyed them at the start of the year anyway:

How many had books at home? 3

How many had ever read a book for pleasure? 2

How many had never read a book at all out of class or parents making them read? 18

How many had never read a book from beginning to end at all, even in school? 1 – who I hasten to add had not been in our school for a year having entered half way through Year 8.

And so it was that we embarked on reading A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. I won’t regurgitate my previous praise for this book which can be found here but I found it fabulous! I have sung its praises at school and among friends and family for months! I even bought in a class set of them for reading at school. And it was these which were distributed amongst a very definite class of mostly male non-readers.

Many of the fears and threats that books pose to non-readers were absent from the book. Written from the point of view of a teenage boy, its language is mostly simple, almost monosyllabic and robustly Anglo-Saxon; it is puntuated by the most wonderful and muscular illustrations by Jim Kay such as these

And it alternates between three worlds: the familiar world of school where Conor negotiates bullies and teachers with varying degrees of success; the emotionally traumatic and horrifying world of home where Conor’s mother is struggling in her fight against cancer; and a mythic world in which a monster, some ancient personification of all that is wild and untamed appears.

We finished the book this week. As all teachers do, we alternated between reading and working on it but this week we got to the climax: Conor was finally forced to tell the truth of his own nightmare and the mother’s battle with cancer comes to a head.

I read these final pages to the class.

They were silent.

Absolutely transfixed by it.

At least two students were openly (although very discretely) crying.

The emotion that a lot of them felt was not covered up with showing off or playing up as might have been expected.

They sat. They listened. They felt.

And they started yesterday to ask about books. One of them had brought in a book from home to show me. His first one ever. Another asked me to recommend him a book similar to A Monster Calls – plumbing the Carnegie Medal 2012 I went with Annabel Pitcher‘s My Sister Lives On the Mantlepiece.

For the first time in most of their lives, they felt that they could read; that they were able to get books; that books were good.

It really is moments like this that remind us what it is like to be a teacher.

So, to Patrick Ness, I salute and thank you for this wonderful inspirational gift of a book.

And now I turn to the pile of National Curriculum levelling, reporting, planning I have to do and sigh…..



GCSE Fiasco and Ofqual’s Second Report

First off, let me confess that I have not read in detail the whole of the 133 page Ofqual report from Thursday. I’ve scanned it. I’ve skimmed it. I’ve read reports about and summaries of it. I’ve been dipping in and out of it and I think I pretty much know what it says.

But it’s always possible I could have missed something or misinterpreted what is there. Please correct me if I’ve made mistakes.

As I understand it, in very broad summary, the report claims that the June grade boundaries were correct; that there was evidence of overmarking by teachers which led to the need to raise grade boundaries.

Let’s make a few observations which are entirely my own and personal.

1) The system was too complex for teachers.

These changes brought added complexity for schools as well. They had many more decisions to take: where previously they merely had to decide whether to enter each student for the foundation or higher tier, now they also had to decide whether to enter each student for English or for English Language and English Literature; when each student should sit units and in what order, and when and whether each student should re-sit any unit or units.

Now, I don’t know about other teachers or Heads of Department but how incredibly patronising is that? We can’t make decision about which pathway student should take? Or which tier to enter them at? I’m sorry, Glenys, but we are all professionals; we are all graduates for goodness’ sake! Of course we can make those decisions. What frustrates and baffles us is the changes that are being made to the specifications mid-stream!

2) The system – coupled with pressure to achieve A*-C in English – encouraged teachers to track progress.

As unit results accumulate for any one student, schools are able increasingly to predict the student’s likely final result, and aim for it. This makes them especially susceptible to pressures, as teachers strive for the best possible outcomes for their students and school.

What is wrong with striving for the best possible outcomes? Is that not what teaching is all about? This is in no way a scientific or researched response but I know a lot of teachers both in and out of my department and school and I know that each and every one of them strives for the best possible outcome for the kids. And it is definitely for the kids. Not SLT or the school or the governors… We did not come into teaching for any other reason.

To me, it beggars believe that a genuine desire to strive for success can be listed here as a danger inherent in the system.

3) Predictions

Schools evidently had a high degree of confidence in their predictions.

How – on what basis – can the provision of a prediction indicate the confidence schools had in them?

4) Overmarking

Ofqual stated that

From the records of awarding meetings, it is clear that examiners saw considerable evidence of over-marking by teachers.

Okay. I can accept that. It is a new specification. The mark scheme is very subjective. Without the years of experience which we had on the old specification, I can believe that there may have been some over-marking. And probably some under-marking.

Both Ofqual and exam boards accept this when the report states that:

New qualifications do lead to more variation in school-level results. Edexcel, in its report to us, notes that “it is not an unusual phenomenon for grade outcomes to fluctuate, sometimes quite markedly, from year to year, when a new specification is introduced”. OCR also found that there was “slightly more variability in English than in other subjects in year of specification change, but not considerably more”.

But this is what the process of moderation is designed to combat. Isn’t it?

For any non-teacher reading this – yes I still optimistically assume I am being read! – the marking process goes like this. The student writes their essay, teachers mark it with a numerical mark – and usually give an indication of the likely grade; within the Department a process of moderation takes place where each teacher’s marking is swapped around and double or triple checked. The exam boards, around May time, will then request a sample of Controlled Assessment folders and they then check the accuracy a sub-set of two thirds of the sample that is selected.

If a centre’s marks for the sub-set are within tolerance – which is set at +/- 6% – then the centre’s marks are accepted. If the centre’s sub-set marks are outside tolerance the whole sample is moderated and referred back to the exam board where marks can be altered or then accepted.

That means there are four levels of checking marking: at teacher, Department, external moderator and exam board levels.

If examiners found “considerable evidence of over-marking,” the process of moderation should have been alerted to it and altered the marks of those centres which displayed over-marking. Ofqual reported that “Moderation by exam boards did not prove strong enough to identify and counter problems effectively.” Well, if there are these problems, they should have! Surely! Or what is the point of those procedures? What on earth do they counter?

The report goes on and states that “The Starting with the controlled assessment units in the November 2012 re- sits, moderation will be tightened..

5) Raising Grade Boundaries.

The report, in the same paragraph, says that “As a result, the grade boundaries needed to be higher.”

I’m sorry. How does that work. If some schools over-mark – even if many or most schools were over-marking – to be honest, even if only one school did not over-mark – it cannot be fair to raise grade boundaries which is a universal reaction to a specific problem.

I am confident that my Department did not over-mark. We were very careful. And professional. We searched souls getting our marking as accurate as we could. We combed the mark schemes. Our marks were – according our moderators – within tolerance.

And our kids have been penalised as a result.

And that stinks!

6) Teachers cheated

I accept that I have put it much more strongly there than Ofqual did but the inference is clear from this paragraph.

Many students already had a written exam grade before June 2012. Schools could then calculate ‒ basing their calculation on assumed (January) controlled assessment grade boundaries ‒ the number of marks on the controlled assessment they assumed would give students a particular grade for the whole qualification. The patterns of controlled assessment marks suggest strongly that this assumption influenced the way that many teachers taught, or the way they administered or marked controlled assessment.

So what are you saying, Glenys? That, when the exam marks came back in March, teachers just added a couple of marks to Controlled Assessments for kids who hadn’t quite got the C?


Okay so maybe I can accept that there may be that pressure in some cases – yes we are all looking at getting as many A*-C as possible, especially in English. But that suggestion is blatant cheating. I cannot believe that more than a handful of centres would capitulate to that pressure.

And, again, if there are centres who have done that you simply cannot penalise the entire cohort by raising the boundaries for everyone.

There are – there must be – there should be – procedures for centres that infringe the rules like that. So, apply those to any of these centres where there is malpractice and leave the rest of us alone!

7) Tightening moderation

Ofqual has declared that “Starting with the controlled assessment units in the November 2012 re- sits, moderation will be tightened.”

Ok. To what extent? In fairness it probably wouldn’t change anything in practice as, I aim to mark accurately rather than accurately + 6%… but I like to know the structures and processes that I work with.

8) Grade-free results

As of January 2012,

no grades, or other information about aggregate performance, will be issued for January 2013 assessments (whether exam or controlled assessment) until June 2013 assessments have also been marked. Awards for both January and June assessments will be made at the same time.

So lets put ourselves into the shoes of a Year 11 who needs a B grade to pursue English Literature at A-Level. They have been entered for January entry for the Prose From Other Cultures exam. How are they meant to decide whether to accept the January exam results or re-sit?

Yes, we can indicate that if the mark were applied to previous mark schemes it may have been given a certain grade. But that is not the same as knowing you can bank a B grade. I know that, once we reach the specification level, the unit grade has limited relevance but, even so, that is the piece of information I would want to decide whether to resit.

For those of you who want to read the full report, this is the link.

And this will take you to the BBC report of the response to the Ofqual report by head teachers.