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Sophia Waugh: School Days

Regulars | By Sophia Waugh | September Issue

We’re starting to make the grade

Those of us who teach English and maths are in a lull before a storm. Or maybe a storm before a lull. That is the thing; we have absolutely no idea where we are. Personally, I find it all rather jolly, but then, in some ways, I am not your average teacher.

Everything has changed for us – the content, the way of marking, the speci cations, the assessment objectives, the very letters (A, B, C etc) with which we have been so con dent for so many years. Letters, for heaven’s sake, have morphed into numbers. And, for the English teachers at least, this is in itself a philosophical problem hard to contemplate.

Children who leave school this year will open an envelope with an Alphabetti spaghetti of results: 1-9 for English and maths (with 9, confusingly, at the upper end); and A-G for the other subjects (with A still at the top).

My GCSE students this year were a delightful top set of (mostly) keen, (mostly) hard-working but all natively intelligent children, who could think conceptually, write fluently and understand both implicit and explicit writing. They are at an advantage in the world, being in the top set, but at even more of an advantage in this particular year of examining. I only taught them literature, and I know their capabilities.

But there is no doubt at all that the new/back to the old way of judging – everything examined at once, no coursework or controlled assessments – bene ts this type of child. In one year, these students studied 15 poems, Macbeth, A Christmas Carol and An Inspector Calls. Unlike in previous years, they have no text in front of them in the exam.

Children who can read, understand and remember (but not memorise; don’t let’s go down that route) are going to find it easier to revise than those who struggled to understand the rst time round. Children who can write coherently and do their homework are going to nd it easier to revise than those who will occasionally slavishly copy down something only half understood.

My argument is that although, yes, the exams are harder, they are probably now doing their job better. If the grades are going to be doled out scientifically – ie only the top three per cent of the whole national cohort – then we know that 9 means something significant. I have three students in sniffing distance of a 9–or so I think, but, not having seen the rest of the country’s efforts, I can only hope.

My school, and my department, like every other in the land, is holding its breath for a good outcome. There will, I am sure, be a dip–but it will be nationwide. Fewer students will probably get a 4 (a pass, although a 5 is a‘good pass’ and what sixth-form colleges of note will be looking for) – but for those that do, it will mean something.

I have seen barely literate students scrape a C, set o to do A-levels and leave by Christmas because it is just too hard. That was when we failed our students.

Now that we are making them think, and opening them up to more poetry, more literature and more ideas, we are giving them something worth having, even if they ‘fail’.


This story was from September Issue issue. Subscribe Now