Debate: Do good teachers get bad GCSE results?

How much should GCSE results matter? Teacher husband and wife Zoe and Mark Enser go head-to-head to explore the question

GCSE results: Do good teachers get bad exam results?

Zoe Enser, director of learning at Seahaven Academy, in East Sussex, and her husband Mark, head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College, also in East Sussex, discuss the question of whether good teachers get bad exam results:

'GCSE grades aren't totally reliable'

Zoe says: “I’ve seen this question posed repeatedly over my career, and I find it problematic for a number of reasons. 

"Firstly, there is the double use of the word 'good'. As someone who deals with language, I am very much aware of the subjective nature of the term and, as a teacher of 19 years, I am highly attuned to the way in which it is variously deployed by Ofsted, school leadership teams and other measures, describing a myriad of different things. 

"Secondly, I worry about how narrow education could become when only focusing on a final number. If 'good' teachers can’t have 'poor' results, we risk missing out on the nuances of what it means to be an effective teacher and damaging an already fragile workforce, especially in schools where difficult and shifting cohorts are a feature. 

"So I believe that a teacher can be good, despite not clutching a brace of exceptional results.

"Consider the studies over the past few years that have clearly identified issues in terms of the reliability of GCSE and A-level results, with up to 40 per cent of grades last year deemed to be potentially 'incorrect', according to a study by Ofqual. 

"Discrepancies increase with subjects more reliant on essay-style responses, with subjects such as history and English literature having a 52 to 58 per cent chance of having an 'accurate' grade awarded. In recent years I have had students initially awarded a grade 5 be subsequently awarded a 7 when the mark was challenged, with others moving from a 3 to a 5. 

"Then there’s the moving target of norm referencing within these results. A grade 4 is only a 4 in relation to the others who took the paper; there are no longer hard and fast rules as to what that might look like, at least not in my subject area. 

"So if the required number of students do not achieve this grade, a grade equally based upon some problematic results in maths and English at key stage 2, does that make the teaching less good? 

"These are external variants that classroom teachers have little control over, but even at a more micro level there are aspects within an individual school which will impact on those results. 

"The student who turns up in the school at the start of Year 11. The one who decides not to come to any lessons at all. The change of groupings at Christmas and Easter leaving you with a whole new group to learn about and focus on. The student with a physical or mental health issue which prevented them for revising. 

"We can have impact on these things to an extent, but we aren’t magicians."

'Teachers should take responsibility for grades'

Mark says: “I certainly agree that it’s possible to be a good teacher who doesn’t get good grades for reasons beyond their control. But we need to be wary of completely disconnecting the impact a teacher can have on their pupil’s outcomes in an exam. 

"My concern is that the damaging nature of high-stakes accountability has led us to be scared of taking any responsibility for the outcomes of our classes and this then means we are unwilling to learn potential lessons from them. 

"Of course, one year’s exam results tell us very little about how we are doing; there are too many variables year on year. 

"But what if we take a look at a pattern over time? If our classes always underperform in relation to others in the school or department, then surely we should look at what we or they are doing differently? We should at least be open to the idea that this data is telling us something and investigating whether or not it does. It is the nature of high-stakes accountability that gets in the way of this process, not the results themselves. 

"I can look to myself as an example of this. For years, my GCSE results were mediocre at best. Pupils who should have received the highest grades missed out and some of those who I knew should have been capable of achieving a C (now a grade 4 or 5) were coming out with something lower. Each year I could point to individuals in the class who underperformed for reasons beyond my control: poor attendance, family circumstances, behaviour and attitude, but as the years went on I had to accept that the common denominator was me. I was not as good a teacher as I could have been.

"I don’t think this means that it was necessarily all my fault but there were areas in my practice that needed improving. I realised that I was still clinging on to the way that I had been taught to teach and that had been encouraged early in my career. 

"I was avoiding direct instruction and hoping pupils would learn more through working things out with minimal guidance. I was spending too long on marking and not enough on more effective forms of feedback. I was hoping engaging activities would lead to improvements in learning. I needed to accept that my less-than-stellar outcomes highlighted weaknesses in what I was doing in order to make changes and, as a result, I am certainly a better teacher and my pupils have much better outcomes. 

"Exam results should not be a stick with which to beat teachers but we are professionals who should have the courage to interrogate the data for ourselves to check that we are as effective as we can be."  

Zoe Enser tweets @GreeboRunner. Mark Enser, who has written a book, Teach Like Nobody’s Watching, which is out now, tweets @EnserMark 

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