Sunday, 16 December 2018

Mock marking: we have a problem.

When you place the GCSE papers next to each other, you cannot help but notice that students have to write pages and pages of answers for the English GCSE papers. I have heard about many subjects talk about how the 6 mark question is tricky because students have to write a lengthy paragraph. At times for English, it feels like an endurance test rather than a test of knowledge and skill. The papers equate to several essays. GCSE English Language equates to four essays in one hour and forty five minutes a paper. Literature has two essays on one paper and three on the other paper.

But the exams are not only an endurance test for students they are also an endurance test for teachers. I’d love to say things are nice and fair in the world of mocking marking, but I can’t. Things are far from fair. English teachers would kill for a quick one word answer question or a table to mark. The only ‘joy’ teachers get is the four mark question and that is a short lived joy, when you have four essays to mark after that question. As a curriculum leader, I will often present leaders and governors with a copy of the exam paper, because I have to clarify what the paper covers and expects. All too often, the common thought about English is ‘write an essay about a story and write a pretty story’. It is gruelling. Gruelling to do. Gruelling to mark. You can see the penny drop on faces as I turn page after page before leadership teams.  And, then students have to…. and then they have to … and then next they have to… and finally they… You can see that look on disbelief on their faces and they equate the amount of writing a students does with the pain and anguish it takes them to send an email to staff.

Yes, I might not have to clean the sinks after a lesson, go out in the cold, rain and snow or even have to explain the complexities of sexual intercourse to young giggling people, but I have to read lots and lots of work and that is considerably time consuming. I’d love to say that the opportunity to read a book in a lesson or watch a DVD version of the set text balances things out. It doesn’t and I think leadership teams need to look at what their English departments do in their schools, because there is a big problem with the marking of English mocks in schools. Many schools are getting teachers to mark four English papers in one exam period. That’s the equivalent of teachers marking thirteen essays per student in a class. Oh, don’t forget to mark KS3 books every fortnight and write some reports.  

I am a big fan of the new style of GCSEs – yes, there is one fan- but I think that they have caused a pressure point in schools. The knock-on effect of binning coursework in English has created a focal point of marking. If you are married to an English teacher, don’t expect to see them in the annual mock months of November and December. There are weeks of marking, in some cases.

The government and exam boards are not helping with the process as the emphasis has always been on students taking the exams in Year 11 and not Year 10, which compounds the problem. The majority of Year 10 is teaching and Year 11 becomes the preparation for the skills. Ultimately, the problem is that English teachers teach two GCSE courses and not one, like most subjects. Oh, and they are double weighted so they are really, really important to the whole school. We are marking double the amount of mock papers.

We need to address the inequality somehow. We are compelled to teach two GCSEs moral and educationally, but we need to shout about how the system needs to support English teachers. Honestly, I would have left my NQT year if I was faced with level of marking I have now for the GCSE papers. It is unsustainable and we need to acknowledge this.

I am in a lucky position that I am supported by the leaders in my school. They understand the marking situation and so we’ll have one paper marked before Christmas and one after. This sadly isn’t the case everywhere and we need to shout out about it. We need to be talking to leaders and teams and see what they can do to help. A shrug of the shoulder is not enough. A ‘well that is how it is’ smile is not enough. We need support and actions. We need schools to acknowledge the level of work involved and support teachers with the workload.

A long, long time ago English departments were given time off the timetable to moderate coursework folders. I want English departments to have that day off timetable again to mark exam papers. This then would start to address the imbalance. Teachers shouldn’t have to work Saturday and Sunday to mark mock papers in time. That’s what is happening. And, I think some teachers are thinking this is normal.   

Workload is a paramount issue in schools and a thorn in the teacher retention’s side. I feel that we need to speak up about it. We have a situation here that is damaging.

I want leaders to engage with English departments and see what you can do to help. Yes, you may want the results, but you’ll not get them when the team is burnt out by the exam marking. The papers might be marked, but the teaching will be mediocre because the teachers are tired and exhausted.  What would your teaching be like if you had to mark thirty sets of thirteen essays in-between lessons?

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 9 December 2018

Fake news: I care more than you do.

There is one thing about teaching that never changes. Teachers care. In fact, they care a lot. They care so much they listen to a lot of crap, attend pointless meetings and do things that neglect their own health, family and friends to make things better for students. I have yet to meet a teacher that didn’t care on some level. That caring might take the form of detailed marking, several unique handshakes with students as they enter the classroom, a Pi shaped cake it has taken the teacher all Sunday to make or just a silent smile.

Nonetheless, there’s a lot of ways to show people and students you care. Some visible. Some invisible.

Being a tutor is an interesting experience. I have been a tutor several times and saying goodbye to your students is an interesting one. Occasionally, it became a competition of who cares for my students the most. One teacher makes an award for each student made from a wooden spoon spray painted gold. Another teacher makes each student a keyring with a picture of themselves and the whole class. Another tutor writes a personal card to each student with a lengthy paragraph about their hopes and dreams for them. Not to be out beaten by the others, one teacher does all of these for their group. They don’t want to be accused of not caring enough. Or, for them to think they don’t care. So, they buy them an Easter egg too.

We get ourselves in knots over the ‘caring’ aspect of teaching. We channel it into some bizarre things like displays, worksheets and physical goods. We can easily forget that you turning up to school is caring. For some students that never see members of their family daily, seeing one person consistently in their week is great. Our stability is caring. Our friendliness is caring. Our conversation is caring. Our interest in their work is caring. Our pushing students is caring.   

Twitter has disappointed me over the last few months. I enjoy the symposium of ideas yet it has, lately, become a menagerie of emotions. Ideas and emotions have been twisted together and spat out in different directions. People have attached particular negative emotions on to ideas, so if you think one particular thought you are meant to feel bad. I have seen shaming for thinking a particular way. There have even been names for the different sides of an idea and people have been labelled as being on one side or another, without even consulting with the person in question.

Then, people have added ‘caring’ into the debate. If you care, then you would see X as wrong? Then, we have had people shoving their own children into their arguments. Would you want your own child to have to suffer X? What started as a conversation about writing the date in full has become a full-blown tribal war where teacher’s offspring are being sacrificed to appease the masses? A five minute trawl through Twitter becomes an educational version of ‘Les Miserables’.

The problem is that ideas and people have been fused together. People are not separating the idea from the person. If you think isolation booths / chairs in rows / knowledge aren’t bad, then you are a bad person. Instead of making rational cases why something is good or bad, we get ideas personified as twittering people. I can quite happily dislike an idea, but I like the person on Twitter. This sadly isn’t the case. It seems that people can see past the idea.

We all care and are passionate about things. That’s why we are on Twitter and reading tweets about education. However, that passion and care can be all consuming and controlling. Accusing a teacher of not caring is like accusing a fish of not swimming. We are emotional beings. We are often trying to keep those emotions repressed in the classroom. The output for these emotions are either a partner or Twitter / Facebook. And, growingly I am seeing an output of emotions on Twitter. Things are getting a little bit emotional.

The thing that disappointed me most was the ‘isolation booth’ discussion recently. There were some interesting points made, but added to them was some remarkable emotional vitriol. Instead of an exploration of the concept and the strengths, problems and weaknesses, we got finger pointing and shaming and arguing. I am one of those people who, like most, want to be convinced through reasoned arguments. I am open-minded about things and happy to have my mind changed. However, in that case we didn’t get reasoned and exploratory discussion. We got emotions thrown out left, right and centre. And, the biggest of these was that I must care less because I don’t fully (note the word ‘fully’) agree that they should be banned.  I, like others, was made to feel like an educational Scrooge (Stave 1- wink, wink) and it was shameful.  

English teachers know about the three key aspects of persuasive writing. Logos. Pathos. Ethos. You need all three when persuading people. Sadly, in recent debates we have concentrated on the emotions (Pathos) and forgotten about the logical reasons (Logos) and credibility (Ethos). One thing I spotted was a company offering their services on managing their behaviour was retweeting messages favouring the banning of booths. This, of course, is problematic as they serve to profit from the banning of the booths.  Plus, we had primary school teachers commenting on their use in secondary context and not their use in a primary context. This for me was problematic because it was viewed from an outsider’s perspective.  Yes, we are all teachers, parents, children at some point, but I couldn’t tell you of the educational value of stickle bricks because I don’t use them to teach in a primary school. I certainly could offer a point – and that’s fair in democracy – but I think the credibility of my argument should be transparent. I don’t have experience of stickle bricks but I can have an opinion but it probably isn’t a credible as a teacher who uses stickle bricks. Listen to the primary teacher about stickle bricks.

We need to go back to logical and credible reasoning and move away from the emotional ‘ I care more than you’ arguments. In the classroom, we know we can manipulate emotions. We can make students feel guilty, shame and embarrassment in our classroom, but in the same room we can make them feel pride, joy and encouragement. We are the emotional puppeteers in the classroom. We know that the way we behave, speak and act impacts on the emotional state of the people in our classroom. We can also control how others feel around us. We have a duty to deal with emotions sensibly, humanely and appropriately.    

I don’t care more than you do. In fact, I care as much as you do, so let’s not use that as an argument in education debates. Maybe my caring might not be A3 sized, laminated and photocopied in colour, but be assured my caring is of the same value.

So, let’s not question whether people are caring or not caring. Let’s focus on making people change their minds and not their hearts.

Thanks for reading,