Results day pressure overshadows teachers’ well-earned break

Our new education secretary should pay heed to how the blunt instrument of accountability is damaging the profession

Results day overshadows teachers' summer holiday

It is unlikely that Gavin Williamson, our esteemed new education secretary, will have given a great deal of thought to results day in the years since he picked up his own A level grades in 1994.

Of course, as a constituency MP, and before that as a councillor, he will have had contact with local schools. And he will have been hazily aware what a big deal the next two Thursdays would be for students and their parents.

It probably won’t have escaped his notice that, in recent years, results days have become even more important because of his forerunner Michael Gove’s decision to do away with modularity and revert to a cliff-edge winner-takes-all format for GCSEs and A levels.

Put simply, these days represent a massive deal for students – and this is where the focus of the mainstream media will rightly be. In the coming days, we should put to one side the temptation to dwell on whether we think the format and content of these exams is fit for purpose in 2019 and celebrate the amazing achievements of young people – and, of course, their teachers.

However, I am not going to shy away from pointing out to the new education secretary that the pressure around results season is not limited to the students. It is all too often forgotten – including by me when I picked up my distinctly average grades in the mid 1990s – that the stress of August is now possibly even greater for teachers and school leaders than for those they teach.

That the teaching profession is bedevilled by a short-termism around the latest set of data is no longer a secret (and was recognised by Williamson’s two immediate predecessors). But, at least for those in secondary schools, this never feels more real than at this time of year. With objectives set for just about everything, I know of too many teachers – with targets both on their files and on their backs – who completely fail to relax during their supposedly endless summer holidays. Such is the looming shadow of results day over their well-deserved break.

If Williamson needs a reminder of how this pressure ratchets up – and the damage it does to the profession – he would do well to a look at this piece by one young (and now ex-) head of department about the pressure of targets (bit.ly/TesBurnout).

“I missed family weddings, funerals, social gatherings, and everything in between,” they write. “I put my job ahead of my mental health and still had my commitment questioned.”

And it’s not just the students, teachers and middle leaders. Too many secondary school leaders now live in near-permanent fear as well. Long gone are the days when most heads could survive a disappointing set of results as long as the reasons were genuine and the direction of travel was generally good. Instead, Williamson now oversees a football manager culture in which heads are treated like premiership coaches: they are only as good as their team’s last set of results. And the P45s are sent out just as easily, too.

With the introduction of the Progress 8 accountability measure in recent years, this pressure has only increased. For many heads, the underperformance of just one or two students can bring their score down to “intervention” levels.

Of course, the secretary of state must not forget that most of the worry and stress – and ultimately joy – experienced by school staff in the coming weeks will be because of the love they feel for their students.

But – and it’s worth Williamson remembering this, as he considers the vast responsibility that now rests on his shoulders – there will be too many people struggling to sleep right now because they’re frightened for their jobs. And that is not healthy, for teachers, for leaders or for the long-term viability of the profession.

@Ed_Dorrell

This article originally appeared in the 9 August 2019 issue under the headline “I know this much is true: teachers don’t need this pressure on…”