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Primary Education News
News Secret Teacher: schools should not be slaves to a destructive C-grade culture
A constantly reinforced focus on C-grades in schools grinds away at aspiration and makes achieving the average the ultimate goal
There is currently a cohort of approximately 40 year 11 students in our school who wander the corridors in a permanent state of ashen-faced grimness, wearily dragging their feet as they move from room to room. They are the intervention cohort. The C/D borderline students who may as well wear sandwich boards marking them out as so, just in case their peers had somehow missed the fact they are being mysteriously removed from registration, summoned to endless booster sessions and harangued by every member of the senior leadership team who has had a quick look over the mark book of late.
They are victims of the C-grade culture: an insidious little plague affecting students and teachers alike.
The energy devoted to those students would likely be enough to power several counties. In of itself, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I wholeheartedly believe all that can be done to help students to achieve their goals, should be done. But the key phrase is 'their goals'. I've yet to meet a student who says, "you know what, miss, I just really want the school to make exponential progress in the percentage of five A* - C including English and maths it achieves this year. It's just so important for year 7 recruitment, you know?"
Building on this A* - C measure leads me to think about why it exists in the first place. Presumably, it is thought that this collection of grades reflect a particular level of skill and knowledge. Employers, colleges and universities can then use these benchmarks and feel secure that their intake are of uniform quality. Arguably, the pressure exerted to meet this measure has quite the opposite effect. Students are coached to within an inch of their lives to pass exams in core subjects in my school. Performance in exams and controlled assessments is rarely a reflection of ability and understanding of the subject; it is an exercise in the regurgitation of endless hours of carefully targeted mark scheme driven intervention.
Some may argue that this is par for the course, a symptom of diseases at the very heart of curriculum planning and the nature of education, rather than simply a reflection of a C-grade culture. However, I would argue that the C-grade culture only serves to intensify this issue. Moreover, this type of coaching is at the bottom of the pyramid of dubious conduct. A quick survey of my teacher flatmates, teacher friends and teacher family (yes, yes, I do need a wider social circle) revealed that in the relentless pursuit of C-grades in controlled assessments, practices range from the relatively innocent display of key words to the decidedly dodgy drafting of students' essay on their behalf. Such practices are rendering the precious C they are put in place to achieve largely meaningless.
Increasingly, I have also begun to worry also about the impact on student aspiration. Students in my school are painfully aware of the labels put upon them. If data collected some four years previous earmarked them as 'C students', they know about it. We share targets, discuss their progress with good intentions. We think that this transparency is helpful. For some, maybe it is. Yet nothing pains me more than hearing one of my bright, sparky year 10s say things like "miss, can you tell me what I need to do just to get the C?" or bandy around decidedly teacher-ish phrases like "expected levels of progress". I want them to want the very best for themselves, not the average. In so many ambitions, they strive for exactly that: to play for Real Madrid, not Gillingham; to fill Madison Square Gardens, not the Wolverhampton Civic Hall. A widely articulated, constantly reinforced focus on C-grades in schools grinds away at aspiration; it makes achieving the average the ultimate goal.
I recognise that there is no easy solution to the benchmark dilemma; I do not purport to have one. It will be interesting to see if Gove's proposed changes to how schools are held accountable for GCSE results topples the reign of Queen C. An average point score may allow students to focus on excelling in subjects they really enjoy without such huge pressure but with the caveat of an, as yet unclear, attainment threshold for English and maths, it seems a little hopeful.
For the current intervention cohort however, news of a change – however small - will bring no relief of pressure. I fear it is only a matter of time until the constant monitoring of them crosses from stringent to positively Orwellian. Perhaps the head will issue them with bells, in case they stray too far for too long from a revision booklet. Just so long as that bell rings out a handy mnemonic for analysing poetry or a tuneful ditty about photosynthesis, of course.
This week's Secret Teacher works at a secondary in the midlands.