Buckle in, the race to GCSEs has begun

Teacher and author Emma Kell shares four important things to keep sight of in the rush to get Year 11 ready for exams

Emma Kell

As we buckle up for the GCSEs, there's three things that we all need to keep in mind

"You’ve let down a generation of young people." These were the words of a school governor when the results of the school I was teaching at took a nosedive. For all the sense of perspective and logic and knowledge that the team had made a difference to thousands of lives over the years, these words still scorch and scar.

What followed was acutely painful. The bouts of self-flagellation and self-examination were regular and brutal. The results went up, yes, but I’m not sure I can justify all the drama that went with it.

Did this "dip" take away from the engaging and enriching learning that our students had experienced? Does it diminish the value of the hundreds of young people now living or working in different parts of the world with language skills that well exceed our own? I hope not.

The words of the governor were ill-informed and ill-timed, but they contained a bitter truth. As teachers, we hold responsibility for our students’ life chances. Of course we do. It wouldn’t be worth getting out of bed in the morning otherwise. 

But despite some enlightened and respected voices, we are still entirely bound to our students’ ultimate exam results – from our professional status and our salaries to the school’s reputation. And that’s before you consider the profound commitment to making a difference to students’ lives that is shared by every teacher I have met.

'Intervention frenzy'

Many years on, and Year 11 mock results are coming in across the country. "Quality teaching over the years is the key!" we have insisted. "It’s about what happens in Year 7," we have said. And, with an "it is what it is" shrug of the shoulders, teachers across the country resign themselves to the Year 11 intervention frenzy.

Fasten your seatbelts.

Schools are data-crunching and the build-up to the GCSEs is in full swing. "Sixteen weeks!" We cry to our students and colleagues. "Sixteen weeks!" The countdown clocks are going up. How many days, minutes, hours…? How can we close the gaps and maximise the value added? How can we make the graphs look healthy?

Every second of every lesson is gold dust. Teachers across the country model determination and passion and a sense of urgency. And students across the country remain teenagers.

Some catch the bug and run with it – we know from experience that the bright-eyed ones yomping through past papers at lunchtimes will do well, if they don’t burn out first. Some start to panic. Others do ostrich impressions, which in some cases involves regressing to the age of 8 and bounding around corridors like a Labrador puppies and in others mutinous under-the-breath mumbling. And still their teachers persevere; they maintain faith and hope in these young people, and plumb every depth of energy and optimism.

Of course we do. Because we care. It wouldn’t be worth getting out of bed otherwise.

Like many Year 11 teachers I’ve spoken to for my research, I’m guilty of seeking quick fixes for the young people I work with. A formula students can follow in the exam to stop them panicking, waffling or going blank when faced with that wooden desk. Something colour-coded and pretty. Something I can laminate! Something tried and tested. Something that will WORK! I’ve even heard of a school where students are writing and learning by heart all-purpose pieces of creative writing to regurgitate in exams. This makes me want to sob a little.

Breaking: silver bullets and holy grails don’t exist. Sorry.

There are four things that it’s really important we don’t lose sight of.

  1. As Keziah Featherstone wrote earlier this week, this term is not the one for new initiatives. Teams achieve some of the best results for their students when they realise that their tried-and-tested routines are effective and stick with them.

    Sometimes, as a student once said to me, "boring is best". We know that overloading students with excessive paperwork and information doesn’t work. Most of us will fall into this trap, but it’s worth remembering that our tried and tested strategies of quizzing, questioning and building relationships are what work best.
  2. We’re human, too. And we know that we don’t function as well as we could in the classroom when we’re wrung-out, stressed-out and a bit broken. Teachers are telling me they are going home in tears of anxiety because of the upcoming GCSE exams. Teachers are telling me their relationships at home are suffering.

    They’re questioning their value as teachers, as I did, when the governor said what he did. And it’s the first week of term. You can only do what you can do, teachers. We’re experts in our field, compassionate and dedicated, but we’re not magicians. Let’s keep doing what we do well and holding back some energy for a life as well. If we burn out, a whole generation of new students will miss out on that dedication.
  3. Of course most of us will give up lunchtimes and after-school sessions and the occasional Saturday to help students to do better. I’m not an advocate of the "refuse to do intervention" school of thought (although I do acknowledge the validity of the argument). While we know that making students more independent is key, few of us are going to risk a "hands-off" approach because we’re not going to be able to sleep without knowing we gave it our best. But if we do this at the cost of other year groups, we’re just perpetuating the vicious "Year 11 panic" cycle. Year 9s need your feedback, too. Year 7s need your energy.
  4. A final but very important point. If your colleagues are looking stressed-out already, please remind them they’re doing a great job – whether you’re a student, a manager or the teacher in the class next door. We all need this sometimes.

As ever, I write as a researcher. No link should be made between the content of my articles and any individual school. Any details of schools and participants have been anonymised.

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Emma Kell

Emma works at a Pupil Referral Unit in Buckinghamshire and trains teachers in London. She is also an associate for Education Support and the Anna Freud Centre. She writes and speaks about teacher wellbeing, recruitment and retention.

Find me on Twitter @thosethatcan

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