'I hope Year 11 know we're doing the best we can'

This year's GCSE assessment system is unfair to the teachers – and, most of all, to the students, writes Sarah Ledger

Sarah Ledger

GCSEs and A levels 2021: Nine in 10 teachers awarding grades report 'problems'

We said goodbye on Friday. To an outsider, our final Year 11 assembly looked just like all the other final Year 11 assemblies up and down the land.

There were photos of the Year 7 French trip, Snapchat downloads of Rob and Corey blithering about in the common room, a video featuring a number of inexplicable in-jokes and the year team dancing awkwardly to a redacted Lizzo track. There was a hitherto secret rapper bursting on to the stage for an impromptu performance (it brought the bloody house down). And, while the head looked anxiously at the clock to make sure the exiting crowd in scrawled-on shirts didn't collide with the Year 9 lunch queue, there was a tearful rendition of Don’t Look Back in Anger, before flowers and thank-you cards were presented. 

But to us it was special, heartfelt, original. “The calmest one yet,” we say to each other as we herd sobbing teenagers off the front car park and return to quiet corridors to finish the half-term.

GCSE 2021: Unfair for teachers and students

Year 11 is the heart of the school. They set the tone, they produce the results we’re judged on: they’re the worker bees in our hive. In turn, we owe them the very best preparation to move on. 

Of course, that’s not just a set of numbers on a piece of paper; the knowledge, understanding and skill that lies behind those numbers is what really matters. But, until last year, their GCSE results were the currency with which our students secured their future, and everyone had a rough idea of the value of those grades.

I sometimes wonder if teachers – who live and die by rules – are more inclined to be compliant. Cancelling exams without replacing them with a robust externally standardised system is ridiculous. We’ve known it’s ridiculous for the past 18 months. Patient waiting for a better plan to emerge has been in vain. 

But we’ve fallen into step anyway, setting, assessing, grading, internally moderating, tracking and filing hundreds (thousands?) of pieces of Year 11 evidence in the past half-term – unpaid work above and beyond our usual workload.

Those of us who mark exam papers over the summer won’t be working this year; that cash has been mysteriously absorbed by the exam boards who’ve done very little to support us.

Yes, we’ve complained – complaining in a moderation meeting on a fine summer evening is as much a prerequisite as stewed tea and a packet of Digestives – but it’s a muted grumble rather than a defiant roar. 

And now there are reports that law firms are putting together a package to make it easier for parents to sue if they think we’ve got it wrong. It’s like train drivers being required to drive blindfolded and then being sued if they crash.

This is unfair – on every level – to us, to the credibility of the qualifications and, most of all, to the children. 

Are we just too tired to be furious?

Are we just too tired to be furious? Why aren’t we shovelling assessments into sacks, sending them to Gavin Williamson’s door and making him pay for the postage? Why aren’t we instructing our lawyers or – blimey – our unions to demand payment and clear assessment procedures? 

It’s not that we don’t want to be held to account. But we don’t want to get it wrong. Without rigorous external moderation, there’s no guarantee our judgements will be consistent.

The complex process of assessment is part of our job; we all know the pitfalls. In these strange times, when teams of lawyers may well be scrutinising the educational press for evidence of unconscious teacher bias, I won’t dwell on the detail. 

It’s enough to say that standardisation exists for a reason. Without it, as hip-hop artist Akala pointed out on Twitter – while acknowledging that our exam system is far from perfect – it’s currently the “best chance children from less fortunate backgrounds…have of competing”. 

Without nationwide parity, we go back to the days when it’s only the young person with the most charming smile or the most influential dad who wins the job.

After half-term, teachers will return to finish the task. We’ll also be sorting out the upheaval the bubble system has created, teaching our other classes and planning ahead for September. Meanwhile, the uncertain future of key stage 4 and 5 exams hangs over a third cohort.

I only took charge of my current Year 11 last May. I barely saw them as a whole group in real life – they mainly knew me through Teams assemblies and at lunchtime in the repurposed sports hall. 

Yet somehow I know them better than other year groups I’ve led. Seeing them weather the pandemic with energy, humour and determination has been, honestly, a joy.  

I think – I hope – they know, despite the difficulties, that we’ve done the best we possibly can for them. They won't look back in anger...I heard them say. 

Sarah Ledger is an English teacher and director of learning for Year 11 at William Howard School in Brampton, Cumbria. She has been teaching for 34 years

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