Exam Factories: I don’t judge my child by set criteria and targets. Should I let anyone else?

‘Miss, don’t worry. I’ve already been told I won’t get English or Maths so I don’t have a future.’

These words were said to me two years ago. This was a year 11 boy who had ADHD. I had taught him in year 7 and made him my project for that year. He had failed a spelling test early in the year after which he proceeded to burst into tears, which I found devastating. I researched ADHD and the obstacles this could present for students. I attended training, tailored my teaching appropriately, gave him personalised target sheets for each lesson and extra lunchtime sessions on how to use mnemonics and other strategies for spellings. He had a good year. But by year 11, when he was back in my English GCSE group, he had given up. He is the reason I stand by the closing sentiment of my leaving speech that year: no child is the challenge, the system is.

His words stopped me in my tracks. I had for years been working with target grades and aspirational grades, and seeking ways to ensure students achieved them. But these should not be defining young people and, as we await this year’s GCSE results, it truly concerns me that this is exactly how they view their success or failure. This boy is a creative soul, a wonderful artist, witty and unique. He absolutely has a future – he’d be a joy to work with – but he has no GCSEs of note. The pieces of paper he takes with him from school say he has nothing to offer. This couldn’t be further from the truth, so something is very wrong with the system, definitely not with the child.

Now, in my opinion, there should be no national assessments at the age of 16 years. I reflect on my own experience as a GCSE student and how I was very lucky that I came from a family of books and ideas. Sunday lunchtime in my house was a time of debate or ‘higher order thinking’ as it would be termed today. I fought to get a word in edgeways as the youngest – don’t worry, I’ve made up for it since – but I had so much cultural capital to bank by the age of sixteen, I sailed through exams I had barely revised for. I really wasn’t interested. As a teacher, I reflect on the number of students I have had to drag to the finish line. I was about to write ‘kicking and screaming’, but at the age of 16, it was more of a sloping and grumbling. I have literally taken table tennis bats out of students’ hands to lead them into the classroom and sit them in front of a piece of incomplete work. I have observed teenage boys trying to work out how to sit their gangling physiques at desks and place their growing limbs comfortably for the duration of a sixty or ninety-minute lesson. And they just have the sound of stressed teachers’ warnings in their ears. I recall as a lead teacher, standing in front of a year 11 assembly and saying, ‘If you don’t have English, doors are closing.’ I feel so guilty for these words. It’s not true. I know from my own experience and from observing the transformation that takes place between sixteen and eighteen years of age, that national assessments at eighteen actually serve a purpose. Those gangly boys have filled out and have physically become men, and with that their maturity has developed. They take themselves seriously and have a vision of their future.

I was the same. Though there are so many problems with the current approach to national assessments which create problems for these GCSE students. Why on earth are children choosing their options in year 8? My son turns nine in a couple of weeks and bubbles with curiosity and questions. The idea that in just four short years, he will be selecting subjects which will shape his career path is ridiculous. Puberty will only just be kicking in and he’ll be making crucial life decisions. I know, for one, I chose all the sciences based on the idea that the doctors on ER looked pretty fabulous. I soon realised science wasn’t really my thing and I didn’t actually want to be a doctor, I wanted to be an actor so my engagement with ER wasn’t completely misguided, but my ability to make wrong and limiting choices based on a popular TV series was, and I had to be dragged through two stressful years.

Today, issues abound with regards to options. The highly academic Ebacc dominates choices. As one means of measuring school performance, students will be sent down this route for the needs of the school, not their own. Arts do not feature in this. Something I have never understood. This distinction is false. In conversation with the Executive Head of a local MAT, she commented on how their schools do Ebacc in the morning and creative subjects in the afternoon. The idea that Maths and English are not creative is so unhealthy, and the idea the Arts do not require high level thinking is ridiculous. I taught A level Theatre Studies for one year. Not one of the four boys on the course had achieved grade C in GCSE English and so had been placed on the ‘less academic’ Theatre Studies course. It is therefore not surprising that when I asked what they were doing with the other teacher, the answer I got was, ‘We’re looking at Berbatov’s adaptation of Kankov’s ‘The Trial’.’ I believe Berbatov was a striker for Manchester United, whereas Stephen Berkoff had had a go at adapting Kafka’s ‘The Trial’.  They struggled with the subject throughout due to this misguided perception that the Arts do not demand some of the highest-level thinking and skills.

Schools are faced with an uncomfortable dilemma. Children have to become data. Students choose options from boxes so if their two favourite subjects are in the same box, but don’t appear in another, they have to forgo one of them. They are then placed into those subjects which need filling up. Those with artistic talents will be redirected to Computer Science as it’s worth more to the school – especially if the school has shut down its Art, Music and Drama departments. It is therefore not surprising that along with the issues highlighted about the more rigorous and old-fashioned assessment structure, students are also shutting down to learning and feeling the pressure of education, rather than the joy. It’s not going their way, they are not empowered in the process. I remember, as a Head of Year 11, leading a student down to his Graphics teacher to discuss his poor-quality folder. Flicking through the pages of the portfolio, it was evident he had been placed in this subject to make up numbers. The teacher was telling him what more he had to do but it was highly obvious the poor lad couldn’t draw! This subject was a burden – he’d never wanted to do it – but potentially one he was going to have to carry through life with a terrible grade. He dropped the subject at the last minute, when you were eventually allowed to let students do so, but he is now one subject down due to a series of decisions made by others. And this occurrence can only become more frequent in the Ebacc era.

One of my funniest GCSE memories was waiting outside the hall at the end of the old English language exam. The door burst open and the crowd was led by Pooja (grade D target), arms waving through the air, screaming ‘I did it! I passed! I passed!’ You would have thought she had won the lottery. This response always sparks a sinking feeling in teachers’ stomachs, so glances were shared amongst us. You know those who have done well tend to be more pessimistic or unsure. The ‘It was easy!’ response tends to mean they have totally missed out whole sections and sat cockily for an hour doing nothing, wondering why everyone else is taking so long. But thinking even more cynically about this, it also highlights how we train students to pass exams. It becomes a tick box activity and a question of highly scaffolded paragraphs to ensure the key words are there and can be ticked. I think Pooja had done this and so felt chuffed that it was in the bag. It wasn’t. She got a D.

Michael Gove did state that he wanted a more rigorous exam which led to a depth of learning and an avoidance of teaching to the test. I don’t think he’s achieved this. Another major concern which impacts greatly on students’ well-being is the fact that from year 7 they are being primed for their GCSE exams. I challenge Mr Gove, if he’s interested in the impact of his reforms, to visit the year 7 English classrooms of his prized MAT in my borough and tell me these students aren’t being taught to the test. Pages of highly structured paragraphs, target sheets and green pen marking alternate. There’s no visualisation, there’s no exploring the character voice, there’s no creative exploration of the author’s craft. Now, as I understand it, you can’t get those top bands if you don’t present originality in your answer and suggest a depth of learning, but if students are choosing their options in year 8, and school measurement is still heavily on academic performance in the form of the Ebacc, GCSE teaching to test has to be well underway in year 7. High stakes examination and accountability reduces experimentation in the classroom and leads only to the safe, exam focused model so evident today. I would have loved, as a teacher in a school with high levels of  EAL and Pupil Premium, to have spent key stage 3 really building my students’ cultural capital that I was so lucky to have built into my socio-economic status.

I, for one, welcome Amanda Spielman’s call to address exam factories, but it will be a challenge in this climate. The reforms were all about international tables of success and where we were placed. Nothing in these reforms was about personal development and the rounded individual. It is therefore not surprising that the Department for Education is standing by the importance of exam performance. The parental voice is required in this debate – it isn’t welcomed, that’s for sure, by our policy makers which makes it even more imperative we shout out to save our children from these factories. No child should be calling themselves a failure at the age of sixteen, no child should be stopped from visualising a desired future, but every child should be engaged with as an individual to ensure their future happiness through freedom to explore and discuss their vision of their personal success.

I send all those receiving exam results the best of luck and want them to know that it’s not everything. Do not be defined by a piece of paper; you will determine how you want to define yourself. You have years ahead in which to do so.

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