'GCSE English felt like ritualised humiliation'

One teacher explains how a student with special arrangements for GCSE English was left broken by the reading section


One teacher explains how a student with special arrangements for GCSE was left 'battered and broken' by the exam

For the past few weeks I have invigilated GCSE exams for a Year 11 student, Noah.

Noah has literacy difficulties and so has special arrangements. He’s allowed an invigilator who reads the questions to him, 25 per cent extra time and the use of a word processor.

Although I'm not new to the school, Noah was a stranger to me. But over the past few weeks my admiration and respect for him has grown exponentially.

Related: The GCSE – is it a reliable measure of education?

If there is "working to be shown" then it is carefully laid out for the examiner to see. If a plan is required then time is spent dutifully planning, and texts are highlighted and annotated with meticulous care, a box is drawn around the word "explain" and "6 marks" is underlined three times.

Noah asks me to read every instruction and question and to repeat when necessary. As he finishes each paper, he turns back to the start to check through carefully, and often asks me to re-read questions. I wish his teachers could see him in action: they’d be so proud.

At the end of each exam, we briefly chat over the printer while waiting for his work to print. I learn that Noah has a passion in life – cars. He has lined up an apprenticeship as a car mechanic and requires four good GCSE grades as a passport to that.

Today was the last English exam – English language two. For those who are not aware, it is split into two parts – reading and writing. For the reading part, invigilators are only permitted to read the instructions (i.e., "Answer all parts of section A"). We’re not allowed to read either of the texts, nor any of the questions. Noah turned straight to the writing section. I read the question – he plans and then writes his answer.

GCSE English 'kicked the stuffing out of him'

He then turns to the reading section. He pores over it for some time. He turns to me and checks if I can read it to him. I say, "No." He pores over it some more. He then pushes his laptop aside and puts his head on the table where it remains, again, for some time. He lifts his head and looks at the paper again. He asks me again if I can read it to him. Like a well-trained commandant from an enemy army "just following instructions", I say, "Sorry, no."

Noah quietly replies: "…but I can’t read it", before lowering his head back onto the table. I cannot speak. The sound of sniffling and muffling can be heard. My own emotions are also now too close to the surface to be safe. I judge that a sobbing and out-of-control invigilator will not help the situation and so I focus on the empty notice board in front of me and count the redundant drawing pins. There are 49.

This time there is no "going back to check", no reread of a completed question. Just the hands of the clock moving ever more slowly to what will finally be the end of this prolonged and tortuous process.

Noah left the room a smaller man. He had the stuffing kicked out of him. No words were exchanged over the printer apart from a "Yes" to confirm that the unusually meagre print out was his.

This is how Noah ended 11-plus years of English teaching in school. Broken, battered and beaten.

I left this experience feeling upset, guilty and angry. Being complicit in ritualised humiliation was not on my to-do list.

I am no English specialist but, reflecting on this, I ask if, from both a curriculum and human perspective, is decoding ALL that reading is about? Is it not also about comprehension, understanding inference, different aspects of language, communication, vocabulary, etc? Is there not a better way to manage this? Could not some students, like Noah, opt for the use of a reader and forsake whatever percentage was deemed to cover decoding? If that's not possible, could the English language exams be restructured so that both writing elements were put on one paper and both reading on the other with half a GCSE to be achieved if only one paper is sat?

Something, anything, has got to be better than this atrocity.

I pray that Noah will get his four good grades – I sure as hell know that English language will not be one of them. I also know that he will bear the mental scars of this experience for a long time to come.

The writer is a secondary school teacher

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