“That will be a thankless task,” sneered my ex-headmaster as I left secondary teaching to take up the leadership of English resits in a large college. Not only was he morally wrong in saying this, but also, as it turns out, he was factually wrong. I had received similar comments years earlier when I moved from teaching in the grammar sector to one of the worst-performing comprehensives in the country. At another comprehensive in an extremely deprived area, a senior leader referred to the children as “pond life”. I’m reminded of the vice-principal in the 1987 movie Summer School, who reassures a worried teacher of what is effectively an English resit group that “they aren’t real students”. This distaste for those who most need opportunity and education is extraordinarily common, yet last Thursday morning I was overcome by the most moving and rewarding moments of my career. To see the outpourings of triumph, pride, joy, relief and, yes, gratitude from students for whom the qualification will genuinely change their life chances was incomparable.
I have, therefore, been extremely disappointed, in the second year of Progress 8 in schools and when college headline measures have changed to a progress figure for English and maths, that there has been no effort to engage with the progress agenda in the results day discourse. Press releases still talk about percentage attainment of certain grades: 4s, 5s, 9s. The "pretty-and-jumping" photos continue to focus on those with the very highest grades. Nobody is talking about the students who have worked incredibly hard to defy all expectations of their starting points. At my college, we extended the opportunity to follow a GCSE English resit course to hundreds of learners with a prior grade of E or lower. Two-thirds of them made progress with their grades. Before anything else, that was the headline I was interested in on Thursday morning (although our 4+ attainment did rise significantly anyway). If managements and media don’t shift what they report from their traditional C count, a predestined 40-ish per cent of young people each year will feel that their achievements have no value. Their hard-working teachers will continue to be cynical of reforms that should be a godsend.
The despicable faux confusion from educators, journalists, lobbyists and politicians over counting up to nine will not have helped. How can the public be expected to understand something that looks like “+/-x.xx” if in the years leading up to this reform schools didn’t even manage to send a letter home explaining that a 9 is higher than a 1 (you know, like in Strictly Come Dancing)? A young woman from the childcare vocational group I taught English to this year went from an E at school to a grade 5, thanks to her incredible determination and positive engagement. The myopic attainment focus fails to adequately recognise this kind of achievement.
Despite the increasingly vocal insistence from those of us actually teaching the new English GCSE that it has been liberating and a pleasure to teach, the louder voices of the professional Statlers and Waldorfs have driven a narrative that it is something to be feared. We teachers have, meanwhile, been occupied with trying to support those vulnerable young people who are consequently terrified. I met with one such student back at the start of the year. He had come to us with an F from school. He had then done an "alternative" qualification for a year and was suffering enormous anxiety about being enrolled back on to the GCSE that he considered himself unable to achieve anything in. Fortunately, I can be persuasive. Having followed his progress through excellent mock exam efforts this year, I was ecstatic, but not completely surprised, when he received a grade 6 on results day. Obviously, commentators and lobbyists can write what they wish, but if they genuinely care about the welfare and success of young people I think they should refrain from dribbling their nonsense on to the public domain and go back to writing their Ed Balls fan fiction.
Among the other stories trying to detract from hard work and success on results day was the implication that the new GCSE was somehow flawed because “previously good” English departments hadn’t done well. There’s a very simple explanation for that, which is that what those departments were good at was controlled assessments, and I sympathise with those teachers who wrote scores of them for their students due to management pressure while the practice of actual teaching was neglected. There should be no rally to the defence of centres whose failure to actually just get on and teach has ruined the experience of English for a generation and caused the catastrophic decline in the numbers choosing A-level English courses.
Thirty years ago, the movie Summer School climaxed with the lines: “There’s more going on here than test scores and grades. You all worked hard and you improved.” It would be nice if the discourse around results day could at least try for the level of understanding and celebration of progress achieved in that 1980s light comedy.
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in a South-West college. He tweets @Education720