The Exam Season – A Plea

This is a bizarre time of the year. The majority of the controlled assessments are done, there is the usual scramble for those who arrived part way through Y11 or refused to complete work to have a finished folder. Students are demanding revision sessions where they expect their teacher to impart pearls of wisdom, while they sit passively, or don’t show up at all. Rivalries between departments reach breaking point as the key marginal groups are pulled in multiple directions at once. The whole thing seems to create a sense of sliding down a massive helter-skelter with nothing to stop you.

This is also the time of year that teachers become wild around the eyes with the pressure of too many tasks in a finite amount of time. The only thing keeping us going is the thought of a little gained time to tweak and improve for the next year.

However, this is also the time of year that two very different groups seem to go out of the way to make things as difficult as possible.

Exam Boards and Estimated Grades

At this busiest of times, and I know that those with a negative view of teachers will no doubt scoff, we have marking and annotation of coursework samples, preparation of in class and after school revision sessions. I just don’t understand why the requirements of the exam boards are quite so onerous.

I deal with KS4 English, currently made up of 3 different qualifications being taken by 240 students. I have to enter coursework marks, estimated grades for those marks, estimated exam grades for each module and for the qualification as a whole – this amounts to almost 3000 separate entries, either numbers entered onto a website or little boxes on an OMR sheet being coloured in.

Why? How much of this is actually necessary? If the students are taking the exams that is the grade that will count, not a ‘best guess’ from a teacher, why ask for estimated grade for coursework when I have already given you the actual mark I have given it? Surely my time as a teacher is best spent in the class or preparing excellent lessons?

The Press

However, the group I feel is most distructive at this time are the press; each year as the exam season looms, we see multiple stories about how easy the exams are, how they are dumbed down, how it is all teaching to the test (occasionally spiced up with an ‘aren’t teachers awful’ piece).

Now, I am not going to focus on the bracketed point – there are enough blog posts that have dealt with that issue, and I am sure there will be many more – my real concern here is the message we are presenting to those taking the exams. Those who rarely have a voice in the face of all of this criticism.

For the brighter, keen students, there is the pre-exam slap in the face: all your work is pointless, anyone can pass these exams as they are so easy, talk bandied about of ‘easy’ or ‘soft’ subjects…it is pretty demoralising to hear. Every year we loose one or two to ‘why bother then if they are so undervalued’, or those who fall into the trap of believing the hype and doing little work.

Yet the most destructive impact is on those at the other end of the scale; the students who don’t find school easy – whether it is because of home or social issues, low literacy levels, SEN. How much more distructive is it if you have worked your way to an E or a D grade, if you have tried your hardest, revised and then hear sneering news reports that say anyone can get a C grade or above? Or that vocational subjects are pointless? How hard is it to get those students motivated in the first place? To get them into school on a regular basis (any trawl through school data will show that lower ability groups have worse attendance, on average than those above)? To build their confidence that taking the exam is worth while, that there is a chance that they will achieve that magical C grade? How much more damaging are these stories and comments  to our most vulnerable students?

A Plea

So my message to the press, and politicians looking for a quick story or a memorable sound bite – please think of the impact your words have, exaggerating the negative and twisting the positive does not help the students you claim to be most concerned about. When we look at how other successful countries (and we are a successful country) organise their schools  and exam systems, we should also look at the press and Government messages in those countries, do they run down their own exam system, fill their papers with stories of how bad the teachers are and how easy the exams have become?

Teacher bashing has always been a popular media topic, and I am sure it will continue to be so, however, we chose this career, many of us choose to stay despite working in challenging schools and coming across soul destroying situations and choices – but ultimately we chose this career because we want to make a difference.

However, the students you denigrate with these stories have no choice. They have only one chance at being a Y11, they can’t control whether they attend a privileged private school, an outstanding school, an inner city school. This is their opportunity to do well, and having large parts of the population criticise and downplay the massive effort that most of our young people put in does not help. Unfortunately, many of our most vulnerable listen to that message and think what is the point.

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