‘The decision that only the first attempt at an exam would count in league tables hit us like an Exocet’

TES Opinion

Roger Pope, headteacher of Kingsbridge Community College, Devon, writes:
“I cannot remember ever having felt so uncomfortable in a classroom. My skin was getting hotter and clammier, the sweat was making my shirt stick, and my jacket felt as heavy as drying concrete. Why? Because the Year 11 students were asking me why the government had first changed its mind about the grading of speaking and listening when they had already done the assessment, and were then disputing the value of November entry just two months before they were to sit the exam. What was I to say?
The announcement earlier this term that only the first attempt at an exam would count in league tables hit us with the force of an Exocet, and its shock waves, for different reasons, will last for a generation of school leaders. Its logic was  reasonable, its timing inexplicable.
In my opinion, few teachers disagree with the basic premise that underlies government policy. We live in a competitive world. Our children need to achieve world class standards that equip them to steal jobs from under the noses of the Chinese and others who top the international league tables. Challenging exams that drive an equally demanding curriculum will help us deliver that vision.
Teachers are also heartily sick of being accountable for the results delivered by a broken exam system. My head of english could no more bend the rules on controlled conditions coursework than she could lie in the confessional. Yet her students are being judged against teachers in other schools whose notion of control is to stop just short of writing the coursework themselves. Who wants to enter kids for three different exam boards just to secure the precious grade C? 
So, at least in part, I was on side with the government until it announced, several weeks into the start of year 11, dropped the bombshell that whatever result was obtained in November would count above that gained the following summer.
This directly pitted the interests of schools against that of students. It was still in their best interests to take the November exam, and retake in the summer if they needed a higher grade. For the school, what was also a reasonable strategy was suddenly high risk. It would disadvantage us to bank a lower grade in November and a higher in the summer : it was suddenly better for us to delay entry.
I had a moral duty to the individuals in front of me; I also had a moral duty to get the very best Raiseonline and league table position for the school, for that is what guarantees future generations access to a school in their community which is successful and therefore popular and well-funded. Trying to square that circle is what brought me out in a sweat before the class.
And all so unnecessary! Why change the goalposts midway through a school year? Why not announce the change for a year’s time? Perhaps someone in the department was asleep and did not realise the impact of this change on schools and students. Perhaps it was another political swipe at the forces of reaction and conservatism in staffrooms.
The short term effect has been to cause hours of unnecessary angst and wasted time negotiating with parents and students changes to exams which are already underway. The long term impact has been to destroy whatever delicate trust in the government remained. There is no certainty anymore. A government that can abolish the weighting for speaking and listening once the English course has started, and can then change the way schools will be measured when courses are already more than half completed, can no longer be trusted. It can do what it likes. On a whim.
Perhaps those who worried that the abolition of local democratic control of education was putting too much power in the hands of the secretary of state were right after all.”

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