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Primary Education News
News GCSE English grading row: my classroom one year on
English teacher Gayle Wood reflects how the 2012 marking fiasco affected her lessons and students
Michael Gove, the secretary of state for education has been very busy throughout the year, collecting, testing and refining his cauldron of ingredients for exams in English language and literature.
But how do students and teachers feel as results day arrives? What has been the impact of last year's fiasco? And will it all be different this year?
Last year, English papers were downgraded in an attempt to restore confidence in the 'discredited' GCSE exam. The consequence of this iniquitous decision was quite the opposite to what the education tsars in their naivety had expected: the whole system became destabilised as Gove and Glenys Stacey, head of Ofqual, attempted to defend the indefensible.
Rather than reinvigorating the exam system, it destroyed the confidence of tens of thousands pupils who were hapless pawns in a nasty political game. Despite being challenged in the courts, the results stood – except for in Wales, where the Welsh Parliament ordered the Welsh exam board to regrade the GCSE English exam.
So one year on how does it feel for those caught up in the aftermath?
Teachers still have many unanswered questions, the main one being: how can we best prepare students for this brave new world of state education where the rules change even while they are playing the game? The answer is to anticipate where the goal posts are going to be before they move them; looking into the seeds of time, in other words.
Many schools have taken the preparatory step of moving to the IGCSE in an attempt to limit the damage caused by the constant uncertainty surrounding GCSEs. (Unsurprisingly, the new GCSEs being examined for the first time in 2017 look uncannily like the international exam, which has been quite unaffected by all the recent interference and uproar.)
For many English teachers in state schools, it has been a year of unparalleled anxiety, uncertainty and challenge. We have dreaded the day when we might discover, yet again, that our labours have been in vain, that the extra revision sessions failed to make the grade and that our attempts to second guess what the exam boards really want were wrong.
Many of us woke up this morning feeling sick with worry because – no matter what might be said to the contrary – teachers don't leave the job behind at the end of the day, the end of the week or the start of the holidays. What happens to the students matters deeply to us all the time. The fiasco of summer 2012 left its mark on us all.
For many of last year's students, their results were at best disappointing and at worst disastrous. They had worked their hardest to achieve those higher grades needed for the next stage of their education and they had been cheated.
Desperate times demand desperate measures, so next exam session I decided to try a revolutionary, if not radical, approach. It was a high-risk strategy but it might just work. What had I to lose?
For my new regime I disregarded everything the exam board had said in its PowerPoint presentations, exam reports and training sessions. It meant throwing away the hoops we'd been told we must jump through, rejecting all the words and phrases we were told would gain us marks and ignoring all the advice about which questions to answer in the exam.
We all had a great time and enjoyed our lessons for the first time in two years.
Did it pay off? Well, last summer my year 10 class of 28 highly-able students achieved one grade A and one A* between them. This time, in the next exam session, the same class achieved 12 A*s, 14 As and two Bs. This showed me that experienced teachers should trust their instincts when faced with advice that seems at best counterintuitive and at worst nonsense.
But for many year 11 students the misery and anguish continued. It was too late for a retake; they were stuck with the grades they had been awarded but did not deserve and are now on courses that were not their first choice. No second chance for them.
But what about the students waiting anxiously for today's results? I spoke to one year 11 student who said that because of last year's mess his education throughout the year had been affected. He said his teachers were very cautious and not prepared to give him any predictions; they wouldn't even commit themselves to putting marks on his controlled assessments. He had no idea how he was doing.
One year on, nothing much has changed: no one trusts the exam boards, state education is underfunded, students and teachers are demoralised. Gove hasn't really addressed the issue of the inconsistencies and injustices of the exam system.
I think five out of 10 would be a reasonable mark to award Gove. In GCSE grade terminology, a D. (I was going to give him six but was advised that as this was really a sort of controlled assessment task it had led to concerns that I had interpreted the guidance too loosely. To make sure the right balance had been struck between validity, manageability and true learning I was instructed to downgrade it.)
So, sadly, Michael just missed out on his C. Let's hope it doesn't affect his career plans detrimentally.
Gayle Wood is an English teacher. You can follow Gayle on Twitter: @porthmeorbeach.