Saturday, 30 March 2013

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark: the exam system

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses

Like Hamlet, I am procrastinating too much at the moment:

Three years ago, I pulled my car up to a swanky hotel for an interesting meeting. I was excited because the whole specification for GCSE English and English Literature was changing. I love change. I love change so much that each time I pop to the hairdressers I ask for something new or different. I love changes so much that I change the Shakespeare play I teach to GCSE classes every two years. As I pulled up to the hotel for the free course, I was excited, interested and enthusiastic.  For the past six years, I had taught four different GCSE courses from two different exam boards. The experiences of these courses hadn’t always been positive, so I waited with bated breath for the new specification.  What will the changes be? What new things will I have to do? What will we not have to do anymore?

I wasn’t disappointed. Smaller writing tasks. Interesting tasks. No marking of drafts. Something new called ‘controlled conditions’. A bank of tasks that we could adapt. There were lots of things that had me buzzing with excitement.  The whole thing felt different. It seemed to have a ‘creative slant on things’. It even had a unit on ‘spoken language’ and I instantly adored it, because of my A-level background.  I was sold. This was going to change some of the ways we teach English, I thought, and it was going to help me teach with a closer focus on particular skills. Each assessment had a narrower focus than the previous courses. Each assessment had a clear focus, rather than the previous combination of everything.

About halfway through the presentation, a man asked, ‘What are the grade boundaries?’.  A fair few of us were a little perplexed by our unfamiliarity of the whole marking scheme. Band 1. Band 2. Band 3. Band 4. The idea of working in bands had me a little nervous, but I’d give it a try. The man presenting informed us that the board wanted to move away from the grade culture. This, apparently, would free the teaching to focus on teaching. To be honest, I was in agreement. Mentally, I agreed and signed a contract then and there in my head. The rest of the room nodded their heads in a ‘oh, I see’ gesture. We all worked in schools and we knew how the obsession on grades can destroy effective teaching.  I am a human, yet just knowing the word ‘human’ is not enough to be human.  Knowing you are a C, doesn’t make you understand what a C or a B is. However, collectively we knew we had to have an understanding of what a C was, otherwise somebody back at school would ask us at a later stage. The man asked us to guess where we thought it would be. We replied. He responded in the affirmative, but gave the coda that the exam board could change it, depending on the circumstances.

I left that presentation on a high. No more drafting coursework. Yes! Shorter tasks. Result! Variety of questions, tasks and opportunities. Double yes! Less obsessing on the grades. Woop! Those two years of the new course were a little wobbly but fun. New texts, questions and exams had changed some of my routines. It was hard work, but I enjoyed it. The only problem I had was that the nature of the course meant that things were a bit disembodied. You felt that you moved from one thing to another very quickly. The old style of things meant that you could do a lot more joined up thinking. With this new course there was a lot of spinning of plates, but it was invigorating as a course.

Three years on, I feel duped. That ‘brave new world’ has become a ‘cowardly cruel world’. While we were getting used to not obsessing about the grades, others were. While we were thinking that the controlled condition assessments were not going to be polished as the old coursework pieces, others did not. While we were placing our faith in a system that would grade our students accurately, others did not. There were a lot of machinations going on that my school was not part of. In fact, I was shocked when I saw things mentioned on the TES forum about how the controlled conditions were being run by some departments. It wasn’t the fair process that I was led to believe it was. People had been bending the rules to make sure students got higher marks. Subsequently, I have heard of worse things happening in departments. But, there lies the crux of the issue. Some of this rot had an impact on the national figures. As a result of these higher than expected marks in controlled conditions, the grade boundaries were raised, making my students, who worked hard for their marks, miss out on the grade they deserved. While some students who got grades by dubious methods, got the grades they might not deserve.

We are talking about a minority of teachers and students. Most teachers are like me. We do the best we can with what we have. Who do I blame for the GCSE fiasco? I don’t blame any single teacher. I know the pressures that people are under. I know how tough things can be. I blame the system. The exam system is the poison. It is the problem. We have an exam system that isn’t ‘robust’. That’s my new ‘Ofsted’ speak word at the moment. The controlled conditions elements can be manipulated. The speaking and listening assessments can be manipulated. They are the flawed elements. The exams are marked in isolation and in an objective way. The subjectivity of some of the current elements is its downfall.  It is the poison in the King’s ear. It is killing off the system. It is leading me to doubt what a C, B or A is like. I now look at work thinking: It would be a B last year, but now it might be a C – however, when it gets to the exam it will probably be a D. Ofsted can come in and say to us, ‘You didn’t push these B grade students to achieve their target!’. Our response of ‘we didn’t know what a B looked like’ wouldn’t do.  A data driven culture needs a robust data culture and that is something we haven’t got in the education system. I don’t want a data driven culture, but that is the current way with Ofsted. 

In truth, I am advocating a ban on coursework and controlled conditions. I want it gone now. Today, if possible. Why? Because, I think the integrity of every English teacher needs to be re-established. We work bloody hard. We mark a lot. We do a lot. We plan a lot. We think a lot. I want us to go to the terminal exam system now, because it will help reaffirm the great job we do. Yes, it will mean that there will be an element of ‘teaching towards the exam’, but it means that we can hold our heads up high and say we did the best for our students and that every student is assessed on a level playing field. It will be sad to see some elements go, but I will not miss the student who got his parents to write his coursework essay or the student who copied his essay off the internet. I want my integrity back. Yes, I know that it will not help the girls, who perform better with coursework, but this has been a political 'hot potatoe' in education for decades. Boys underperform = focus on exams (competitive element) . Girls underperform = focus on coursework (time, care element). I want girls and boys to do equally well, but the current system isn't working.

At the moment, I am preparing some students for their GCSE exams. Yet, I am worried. Worried because of this simple question: How can I help a student fulfil his/ her potential if the grade criteria is in a constant state of flux?  And, given the fiasco last year, how are most schools reacting? You not telling me that people are going to sit down and let things happen again. No, they will fight.

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. The time is out of joint.  Hamlet, I mean Gove, is on the course to turn things right.  However, Hamlet can’t and shouldn’t rule Denmark, as he too is part of the rot. He has become infected. The weeds need to be removed and a new gardener is needed. (I am not suggesting a ‘Hamlet’ style bloodbath; something more humane).

Prince Fortinbras enters stage.

Fortinbras: Take up the bodies: such a sight as this
Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.
Go, bid the soldiers shoot.

Thanks for reading,


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