Dear Mr. Gove,
As a teacher I am a strong supporter of your recent statement that no child should leave their schooling illiterate and innumerate. However, as a teacher I can not bring myself to support your belief that every child must (and can) achieve a C or above in maths and English by the time they leave education.
I need to start this by saying that I am not lazy; I am not an “enemy of promise”;’ I am not scared of hard work. In reality I am a dedicated teacher who wants nothing but the best for those who spend time in my care and in my classroom. But I do disagree with your idea about the C grade in the core subjects.
In my career I have worked with higher, middle and lower ability GCSE students and I have held their hand, motivated them and nagged at them through their GCSE experience. I would like to give you an idea about the type of students I have seen through their GCSE English:
- Children in Care
- Children going through divorce
- Children struggling with their sexuality
- Children being bullied
- Pregnant children
- Those with mild, moderate and severe educational needs
- Exceptionally bright children
- Children struggling against religious pressures
- Children struggling against family pressures
- Children with eating disorders
I have deliberately used “children” as I think it’s important to remember that they are not adults yet and as a result of that are not always terribly mature. And as children experiencing a whole range of pressures and problems, some of which an adult could not handle adequately, is it right to expect they are all able to achieve the same minimum standard?
During my teaching experience I have seen changes to education policy which I both agree and disagree with, but the most significant, and most dangerous, change has been the increase of pressure on students to achieve a C or above in maths and English. Certainly, I agree that there should be a suitable amount of pressure on students when it comes to their GCSEs: they are ultimately responsible for what happens when writing a Controlled Assessment or when sat in the exam hall. But are we putting too much pressure on students to achieve the impossible because we, or government, are trying to treat them all the same?
Treating people the same is such a simplistic notion for how a society should function. Should I expect you to run as fast as Usain Bolt? I’m assuming you both had to attend PE lessons and sports days at school; that both of you have access to trainers and somewhere to run. So why are you not achieving gold medals at international running competitions? It’s because you have a different passion and spend your time working on that. It’s because Bolt has a natural talent for running and your natural talent lies elsewhere. It’s because his body is built differently to your body making him able to produce different results from it. So why do you expect a child who achieved level 5 at KS2 and has CAT scores of 130 or higher to achieve the same as someone who achieved level 2 at KS2 and has CATs of 90 or lower to both be able to achieve C or higher? Their brains are built differently to each other; they have different natural talents. And what if their natural talents lie elsewhere? Perhaps in languages, music, art or drama? They will naturally want to spend their time on these pursuits and for a rich and diverse Britain shouldn’t we be encouraging that? Obviously, I tell students that it’s easy to spend time on what you love but more important to spend time on that which you struggle with. But I don’t want to turn them away from their passion and, worse still, stop them achieving incredible successes in an area which isn’t a core subject.
It has always been my understanding that target grades are a minimum expectation for a student, which is why I’ve always told my classes that we’re aiming for “target grade or higher”. But what if someone has a target grade of an E? This target indicates that an E grade is the most likely outcome of this student based on their ability in the subject. This target indicates acceptable progress for this student. And this is the same for every target grade for every student, if set correctly. So why is it acceptable for students with C grade or higher targets to achieve their target grade but those of D grade or lower have to over achieve? It doesn’t make sense to me. To go back to my earlier metaphor, you will have to work harder than Usain Bolt to achieve the same results as him because it’s not an area where you naturally excel. This is the same for students at school. Every year we are demanding that students who don’t have a natural aptitude in our subject to achieve the same as those who do. And if they fail, we force them to take it again, and again, and again… This must feel like torture for them.
I have worked with students who have over achieved in their GCSEs:
- The A grade target who achieved an A*
- The B grade target who achieved an A (and one who got an A*)
- The C grade target who achieved a B
- The D grade target who achieved a C
- The E grade target who achieved a D
Sadly, the final classification of student is not celebrated in the same way as the other 4 examples of over achievers. Sadly, the E grade student who achieves a D overall feels like they failed as the magical C grade still wasn’t achieved. And worse still, the school doesn’t rejoice in the excellent job we did for this student in allowing them to strive for excellence and achieve it instead we mourn the loss of a percentage point for the league table.
I recognise that we need a way to mark exams and controlled assessments, currently that’s letters and soon it will be numbers but it doesn’t show the truth of the education a child has achieved during their GCSE years. In my ideal education system I would love to see a way of recognising students for their achievements, no matter what they are. I would love to see my E grade students who overachieve and get a D being recognised for the hard work and sheer determination they put into their final result. Sadly, this is not currently the case as they, their parents, their school, their future employers and their government still see it as evidence of them not being good enough.
Returning back to the title of my blog post, we should never treat students in the same way. This is upheld when disciplining students or handing out rewards for effort in the classroom. We recognise this when helping guide students in their GCSE and A Level choices. This idea guides our lesson planning and even in-house and Ofsted observations. It even helps us decide whether or not to enter them for the Foundation of Higher tier paper. Yet it is not upheld when we receive their results. And this squashes all sense of pride in the student when their hold the result they’ve worked so hard for. It places fear in the hearts of teachers as we drive to school on results day terrified that we will have to comfort students who have over achieved but still have to face the reality that it’s not good enough and they have to try again next year. And worse still that everyone in the college of sixth form will know that you failed as you walk into GCSE resit lessons and turn up to the same revision sessions as Y11 students: no wonder several of the resitters this year were reluctant to attend lessons and revision sessions as they must have felt embarrassed.
There is only one way that I would like you to treat students the same and this is when celebrating their successes. All over achievement should be celebrated, no matter what grade it results in. All students who achieve their target grade should be celebrated equally regardless of what grade the target actually is. All students who underachieve should face the same consequences, no matter what grade they come out with.
Please stop this current madness of the way you treat my students. And on behalf of all those I have taught and will teach I beg you to start treating them fairly. I beg you to treat all achievement and over achievement the same.