It’s true that you remember the naughty ones most clearly.
I was teaching in a National Challenge school that was in the bottom-50 nationally. There were no behaviour systems and fewer expectations, so all I could do was watch impotently as the big lads of my bottom set Year 10 marched over tables and chairs, clapping their hands and chanting their refrain.
For years the bottom set had achieved remarkably uniform U grades, so presumably giving them to the weedy-looking new guy in the department was somebody’s idea of a right laugh.
For most of the first term, they wouldn’t look me in the eye or acknowledge my existence. However, one strength I have is persistence. After two years, to my delight, all but one of those students achieved their target grades.
The failure of the 'progress agenda'
Admittedly, those targets were a mix of F, E and D grades, and consequently all the praise I received from management that year was focused on my top set’s grades instead, because for a National Challenge school a D was no different to a U. You can see why I started to get excited a couple of years later when we all started to talk about this new thing called “progress”.
The most disappointing individual failure of the recent GCSE results day, for me, was the failure of the progress agenda.
Every headline and every commentary focused on the attainment of a narrow band of students. The entire purpose of moving to the 9-1 grading system was to emphasise the potential for progression and improvement.
In schools, you’d have thought that calling the accountability measure "Progress 8" would have been enough, but all we got in the press releases were honours lists of the highest attainers. In FE, GCSE English and maths are measured on progress, too, but the focus was entirely on how many reached grade 4. Or rather, how many didn’t.
GCSE resits 'described as a disaster'
The headline measure for English and maths in colleges, which is released in the autumn, reports the progress of learners across two years. Whether they move from a 3 to a 4 in that time or a 2 to a 3. It is positive progress.
In fact, a student who moves from a 1 to a 3 is recognised as having achieved more than one who moves from a 3 to a 4. It’s an inclusive system and for those of us who have worked in the C-grade factory schools that sacrificed the education of the most vulnerable to whip a minority of pivotal students across the line, it’s a dream.
Nationally, almost 30 per cent of English resit students attained a grade 4 this year. It’s been described as a disaster, as though every one of those students had previously just been a mark or two away from the borderline and converting them all to a 4 should have been as simple as clicking your fingers.
The reality is that those students potentially represent the entire bottom third of GCSE grades awarded at key stage 4, as more and more colleges rightly take an inclusive approach to offering access to the GCSE for resit; so all the Us, the 1s, the 2s and the 3s.
College English and maths teachers 'are heroes'
Moving a third of them up into 4 could be amazing, depending upon starting points. Interestingly, 30 per cent was the mark of success for National Challenge schools with their full ability range cohorts.
College English and maths teachers are heroes; it’s the toughest job and the least appreciated. But no amount of inspirational teaching and hard work will make the policy a success if enough influential non-teachers keep saying “it’s not working” loudly enough.
Even those incredible men and women who go into classrooms every day and deliver these vital subjects will look around at the abundant celebration of every single other thing that happens in FE, and hold their head in their hands, and give up.
The sector’s lobbyists weren’t with us last Thursday morning, on what I like to think of as the big vocational results day – when a hundred thousand vocational learners picked up results in English and maths GCSE.
'The lobbyists have failed'
They weren’t there to applaud the successes and they won’t have felt the disappointments in the way that only teachers can. Don’t get me wrong, lobbyists have an important job to do for us. We need someone to get us the pay and esteem that our schoolteacher friends have.
But in that, the lobbyists have failed. By focusing their energies on an embarrassing opposition to a socially just policy, and by resisting the progress agenda, they have failed to get proper funding for resit provision. On top of that, they’ve failed to get anyone in FE a pay rise.
But don’t worry, lobbyists, we teachers will give you another chance. We believe everyone can make progress, given the opportunity.
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in an FE college. He is an ambassador for education charity SHINE