'All aboard the Titanic catastrophe of the new GCSEs' – an English teacher's warning from the frontline

English and maths teachers are the canaries in the mine for the new GCSEs and they are highlighting issues that will impact all in secondary, says this head of English

Chris Curtis

Emma Kell offers advice on how teachers can survive the long winter

During a recent Ofsted inspection, as an English teacher I was observed three times over two days. The science and maths teachers faced a similar treatment. I have never felt more like a figurehead, on the bow of a ship, in my life.

In the inspection, it felt like like the heads of maths, English and science and their departments were all strapped to the front of the boat, facing the violent onslaught of the crashing waves, shattering ice and the odd bit of flotsam. One teacher not in these three departments, languishing at the back of the ship, complained to me that they didn’t even get a whiff of an Ofsted inspector’s costly aftershave. I’d have happily swapped all three visits with that teacher.

Ofsted is not the only bit of inequality that two of these departments face. For those in the maths and English departments are also strapped to the front of a different, altogether more troublesome, boat. We are the figureheads for the new style of GCSEs. We are the ones at the front of all the new changes in education. And that boat is beginning to resemble the Titanic.

Currently, maths are dealing with troubling issues over the foundation and higher paper conundrum. English are having to cope with the lack of books in exams, obscure questions and unknown assessment criteria.

The new GCSEs could have been an invigorating and refreshing experience, and the maths and English departments could have easily looked like Jack and Rose at the front of the boat in Titanic; holding each other tight, the breeze blowing our hair as we looked out at the difficult and neverending sea. I was genuinely excited about the challenge of the new GCSE, but the way things have been dealt with have been monstrous and thoughtless.

'Wasted years'

Let’s start with the introduction of the new GCSE. When you change the direction of a ship to, say, avoid an iceberg, you might want to move quickly, but that could cause considerable and far worse damage. Instead, you want to gently change the course by degrees and over time.

For the new GCSEs, we had to change direction over two years rather than the usual five. Our Year 10 students were given months and not years to prepare.

Ofsted said that the key stage 3 years were the "wasted years". That is true when you invent a GCSE so quickly; the students missed out on three years of preparation. In some ways, Dear Government, it is you who have caused KS3 to be wasted years.   

Then there is the lovely grading system. We are not just changing the content, the style, the format of the exams, but we are going to change the terminology used for grading it. They wanted to make the exams harder and worthier. Why did they rebrand the grade C and A* at the same time, when they could have simply changed the grade boundaries? The letters were not the problem.

Lack of consistency

Consistency has gone out of the window, too. Nobody knows what a 6 looks like in English and maths. Why? Well, simply because we are waiting for the guinea pigs – I mean students – to sit the exams and see what it produces. That means every school and every local authority could be judging the new assessment criteria differently. What is a 5 in one school could be a 4 or a 3 in a different school. So predictions, working at grades and interventions, are based on a simple piece of guesswork. 

Now, imagine deciding whether a student should be entered for a higher or foundation paper. Another piece of guesswork, but likely to be a more damning piece of guesswork. With one judgement, you are limiting or hindering a student’s chances. It isn’t fair on the maths teacher to have that kind of responsibility when they lack the experience of the new GCSE.

So when consistency is missing in action, discussions about progress with senior management become a farce. I have heard about schools marking in new and old grades because they couldn’t get their heads around the new systems. Another school got teachers to regrade work because it didn’t look like enough progress has been made. Like some Kafka story, we are in a bizarre situation which has created even more bizarre situations.

Moving forward

Criminally, there will be people in this country whose performance management targets are based on the new GCSE grades. Somebody will think it is appropriate to judge someone’s performance based on a new GCSE, a new assessment criteria and an exam paper that not one national cohort has sat.     

Therefore, May should be the national "hug a maths or English teacher" month. Figureheads were carved on the front of wooden ships to act as lookouts and guide sailors to safety. They were never used to protect and hide behind. They need respect and warmth throughout this period. They have had an unsettled time. If you don’t teach maths or English, then you have this to look forward to. You will probably have the same issues and the same worries in the years to come.

We are all in it together. There’s room at the front of the boat for Jack, Rose, Tom, Helen … just make sure SLT are there at the front with you, holding your arms up, and not at the back of the boat prodding you with a stick as Celine Dion belts out a song.  

Chris Curtis is head of English at a school in Derbyshire. He blogs at Learning From My Mistakes and you can find him on Twitter @Xris32. This is part two of a series of blogs from the participants of Twitter's #teamenglish

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