Why the Exam Process is Fundamentally Flawed in England!

Consider this a Will McAvoy style rant, in part inspired by a conversation I had with the wonderful Non Pratt and our viewing of the GCSES2019 feed yesterday. Enter at your own risk… All views are my own and don’t seek to throw shade on any school I’ve worked in, but instead the government that is needing a detention!

I’ve been out of teaching four months now and I’m still trying to come to terms with the fact that the state of education is not what I signed up for 10 years ago.

I have always been the sort of teacher who is proud of every child, regardless of their result. There is one condition; they have had to have tried their best.

Why? Why am I someone who never wrote “I’m disappointed” or “Must do better.”? Mainly because each and every year we put thousands of students (and teachers) into our own brand of kobayashi maru.

Right now it’s the Easter holidays for most schools. But their doors are not closed. Teacher’s have spent the week’s before scrambling Battle Royale-style to claim students for their ‘Easter School” and are currently making their way home from an intensive day of revision.

Students on the other hand are venting their frustrations on Twitter. Overwhelmed, stressed and anxious; year 11 students are making themselves ill.

I’m no longer on the front line, reassuring students that their health is more important and giving them the easy methods and tricks to revision; something I’d integrated into year 9 once I’d realised the new specifications where mere memory tests and no longer a test of anyone’s ability or skill. After all, revision at such an early stage moves information from short term memory to long term.

There are so many overlapping problems that I’m not certain where you would even start when it comes to fixing the issues.

Firstly, there is the issue of grading. Certainly since I started to train back in 2009 grade boundaries have been set not only post-exam, but post marking. This actually infuriates me. For the previous specification that ran for five years, there was an average increase on all grade boundaries of 5 – 10% until the passing C grade was an eye watering 70%. Only yesterday I saw a student wishing for everyone to do badly so that they could pass. No child’s grade should rest on the performance of others.

It also puts teacher’s in a stressful position. The one question that was posed to me repeatedly over the last few years has been ‘how many marks do I need to get the next grade?’ I answered in a way that perhaps the educational system was not wanting, but was perhaps the most honest; I didn’t know. I could tell students how to revise, I could give students the skills to answer the questions, but I could not tell them a true answer to what would help them cut corners. Student’s never liked it and only some understood. However, had I actually blagged an answer that would have placated them, but remove any flexibility in answering questions and any value to what I was teaching beyond the exam season.

Some teachers however do answer the question and it does give students confidence. However, they sit the exam and they do well. They jump through the hoops. Then, someone post-exam makes those hoops smaller. WHY? Why is that okay? Why is that fair?

Exam questions are assigned points based upon their complexity. Some subjects have their questions written at the start of the specification. If these questions have a value and demonstrate a skill; those grade boundaries should be fixed; allowing students and teachers to know exactly where they stand and ensuring that the grades are a true reflection of individual’s hard work.

But of course, the government isn’t really interested in fixing grade boundaries in order to give a true reflection of individuals or their abilities. Those leaders of education within the government are too scared of having a ‘weak’ cohort, they don’t have faith in young minds or the professionals within a system they’ve never worked in.

Government wants good results and statistics so that the data can be compared with other countries who are working within the IB framework. Yup, not only have we allowed government to restrict choices; it’s of no benefit to those who go through the stress.

Instead of pushing back against this, we’ve assimilated. Teacher’s pay, health and happiness in a vocation they’ve probably chosen long ago (I know I did) has been sacrificed so Britain can have a pissing contest with France and all those other countries we’re trying so hard to break away from.

This skewed motivation for the exam results is then filtered down. It skews how we teach; instead of the skills and independence that will enable a year 11 to answer ANY question, we (and I was guilty of this) throw out formulas and rigid methods of answers questions. Last years GCSES2018 feed was full of students before the English exam petrified that they would only be able to answer a question on three characters within Of Mice and Men; Lenny, George and the bird in the red dress.

We do it because we are pressured into grade orientated goals. We’re given a % pass rate target for a class, often irrespective of the ability. One year, early in my career I worked my arse off to drag some disenfranchised and unfocused students up to a predicted grade C. Was I thanked in the three weeks before the exam? Nope, I was asked what I would do to get them a B! These were students who were targeted Ds and Es. And my pay progression depended on these students playing ball on the day.

The best set of results I ever got? They were ones the school didn’t care about as they were sat in year 10; meaning they don’t count towards the aforementioned pissing contest. It meant I was able to teach my 35 students a three year course, in a year after school. The cohort was independent, chilled and confident. Not only did they get awesome grades that smashed their targets, a year 8 sibling of one got a C! At no point did a single child whinge that I didn’t tell them something. They all knew it was on them and they were there because they wanted to be.

What needs to happen?

• Have set grade boundaries

• Stop comparing the country’s results to others

• Stop performance related pay being linked to exam success

• Let teachers do their god-damn job

• Stop ranking your schools by results

• Reform the exams so they’re skill and knowledge focused and not simply memory tests

• Put someone that has worked in a school in charge of education


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