Teacher assessment has felt like a horse race

Completing teacher-assessed grades is like the frantic gallop in the final furlong of a horse race, says David Murray

David Murray

GCSEs and A levels: Teacher assessment has felt like a horse race, says David Murray

I used to live near the racecourse in Epsom. Some years back, I wandered down for the big race of the afternoon and found myself right up against the barrier where the horses pass. The sound gets to you first. It’s like a Mexican wave that ripples towards you before you can even see the horses approaching. Then, as they draw closer, you start to feel the ground rumbling under your feet, the mighty pounding of the hooves shaking the earth.

As the race finally starts to come into sight, you hear the huffing of the flared nostrils and the straining of the saddles, you see the flecks of sweat on the horses’ coats and the strain on the jockeys’ mud-stained faces. It is far, far noisier than you’d think from the graceful pictures on TV screens. But what surprised me most in all this was how enormous the horses were. Horses are always bigger than I expect but racehorses seem taller still. And they seem to be made out of solid rippling muscle. As the pack thundered by, a majestic wind whipped in their wake. The breath was pulled from my lungs. I found the whole thing absolutely awe-inspiring.   

On the day of my Derby race, I felt I was in the presence of a power much greater than me, something primordial, something greater than me, a mere mortal man.  

That day, I walked home thoughtfully through the exuberant crowds. My experience was obvious and strong, even though I am often slow to know my own feelings. Usually, I tend to just push through, head-down, and the feelings sometimes follow, taking me by surprise when they finally hit me at full force later. But not on that day. 

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We all know that teaching is a ridiculously stressful job and a year can build slowly like the approach of those horses. It all starts fairly calmly in September, with a hint of stress ahead, and then a rippling sound reaches you around March before the full force finally hits in June. And afterwards, you’re left in the wake of it all, somehow still standing, but stunned. And then comes the summer break, with its offer of recuperation and recovery.

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Right now, I think a lot of teachers are reeling earlier than normal. I certainly am, and around me I see the blank thousand-yard stares of the similarly dumbstruck. For many of us, this has been a hell of a year, with everything turned upside-down, inside-out and shifted all about.  

At many exam centres, the evidence for this year’s teacher-assessed grades was completed last week and the initial judgements were, at last, submitted for moderation. For other centres, that will come this week. The spreadsheets of doom are now filled with numbers and are being laid before the priests of the boardrooms. Those marks will go through the long and rigorous process of managerial scrutiny before they can be sent to the exam boards, offerings made to inscrutable gods. I doubt any set of grades has ever been so carefully compiled, deeply thought-through and comprehensively evidenced than these. It’s been a mighty task and now they’re basically done as far as teachers are concerned, barring this last stage of moderation and submission.  

There’s a bit of an emotional slump that comes with the completion of such a monumental task. It’s like running at top speed and then suddenly stopping. Or coming off a galloping horse.

For me, the oddness of the last two academic years has blurred them into one amorphous form, which has left me confused as to where I am now. We’ve had five disrupted terms. The centre-assessed grades (CAG) process of last year and the teacher-assessed grades (TAG) process of this year have changed the dynamics of our job completely. It feels like we are carrying the weight of our students’ hopes and expectations more than ever. Despite our professional integrity, we await the tabloid attacks that are almost certain to come on results day. We might even be anticipating that awkward meeting with a student in the supermarket who didn’t quite get the grade they wanted. But it won’t be the exam board who’s to blame this year.  

So I think we have to be honest that a lot of us have been knocked for six by all this. It’s been a rough few years and this has been a tough term. The May half-term is normally pretty busy in colleges, a time for extra revision sessions, when teachers are available for nervous last-minute queries from panicking students. But not this year. Instead, it will feel oddly quiet this year. 

For half-term this year, I am going to let my emotions catch up with me. I am ready to admit I feel assailed, so I am allowing myself space to recover. And I’m determined to enjoy the loosening of lockdown in a pub or two. The year isn’t done yet and there’s still a long stretch ahead, with students who still need us at our best.

So we can’t stop yet. But our families need us now. Our partners need us. It’s time for a recalibration. Teachers may not always be good at putting themselves first, but we’ve earned it this time. The rumble has come upon us and we’re standing in its wake. We can allow ourselves time to stop and breathe for a bit now. We can let ourselves slowly decompress. But not for long. After all, there are races still to be run.

David Murray is an English teacher at City of Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College

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