Jon Severs

Teacher-assessed grades threaten the core of teaching

The TAGs system risks destroying the all-important trust between teachers and students, writes Jon Severs

Teacher-assessed grades threaten the core of teaching

Mrs Blake stayed positive. I had not got the grades I needed for my university course, but she’d “make damn sure” they took me anyway. I had no reason to doubt her: she was on my side, this was a team effort, she had got me this far. So I sat in her office and I watched her turn a missed chance into fulfilled potential.

It’s a unique feeling, that coming together of teacher and pupil. It’s a type of trust that has no edge, that is born from hours of joint endeavour towards the same goal, that is formed with the knowledge that each has the other’s back and that the end result is just as important to both. It feels like it is the two of you taking on the world, and it is empowering.

It’s an avoidable sadness that this year that relationship won’t be the same for our Year 11 and Year 13 students. Teachers have done as they always have up to the point when an exam would normally have taken place, but the government asked them to step across the floor at the final stage and be the stand-in judging panel. As fair as they will have been – and as dedicated as they were before that point – the results days next week are likely to be a strange, unsettling experience.

“I’m concerned about teachers becoming a target of disgruntled pupils or parents,” teacher Rose Lawson says in our cover feature this week, a view shared across the profession. “For this reason, we are not inviting teachers to be present at results day in the way they would normally…it just seems prudent, at this point, to protect teachers from further stress.”

Of all the dreadful things that have happened to the profession in the pandemic, teacher-assessed grades must feel like the most personal and the most devastating. When you strip teaching down to its core, debates about pedagogy and school systems fade into insignificance in comparison with the importance of the individual connection between that adult and that young person. For what reason was this sacrificed?

You could argue there was no other fairer way. But school leader Jonathan Mountstevens has a different take, one shared by many: “It looks like little more than a way for ministers to distance themselves from responsibility for results, leaving nobody to blame but those who awarded the grades: teachers.”

The fallout is bound to be destructive. Teachers will be blamed for being too lenient by some, too harsh by others, and on both sides people will nod and say, “You can’t trust teacher judgement.” As principal Vic Goddard says: “I know what the papers will say.”

When trust fractures, all the anxieties that have been kept at bay seep out, and it’s difficult to quieten them down. The destablising effect that this will have on future interactions is frightening.

Yet something holds me back me from all-out despair. I think back to Mrs Blake – and Mr Bailey, Ms Langford, Mr Watts, Mr Knight, Ms Burns and so many more of my teachers – and I know that, in the same situation, I would think no ill of them if I was disappointed with my results. Even if my grade was far lower than I expected, the strength of the relationships was such I would still think it fair. I trusted them completely.

Is that still the case now? When I speak to teachers and I read the conversations on social media, I am optimistic. The evidence is there that the pupil-teacher teams of today are just as strong as me and Mrs Blake. After the pandemic, they may be even stronger.

Strong enough to survive the monstrosity that is TAGs? I hope so. As director of sixth form Claire Green says: “Anything is possible when you have so many stakeholders committed to ensuring our young people prosper”.

@jon_severs

This article originally appeared in the 6 August 2021 issue under the headline “TAGs threaten the sacred bond between teacher and student”

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