GCSEs: 'Gavin has left a big whoopsie on our carpet'

How convenient that, after years of OCD-like control, ministers now say teachers know best for GCSEs, says David James

David James

GCSEs and A levels 2021: Is Gavin Williamson gaslighting teachers, asks David James

Nowadays, as a teacher, it pays to be paranoid. The enemy is everywhere but nowhere, invisible but present – there in every empty classroom, dark theatre, in every closed shop and lost job.

Now, we are told, endlessly, that there is light at the end of the tunnel. But if you work in education, especially after this week’s GCSEs announcement by the secretary of state, it feels rather more like we are stuck “before the feeble dawn of gaslight and tea”. 

And it does feel as if we are being gaslit by the secretary of state. Perhaps he is trying to redefine himself as something more accomplished than the hapless Frank Spencer figure who has launched a thousand GIFs on Twitter.

And, in this self-invention, just perhaps, he can be seen as someone in control of events, deciding futures. Being decisive! Making decisions! 

The reality, of course, is that being proactive is self-defeating when every course of action results in more damage, and every word chosen simply adds to the confusion. 

GCSEs and A levels 2021: Government passing the buck

Because words matter. They reveal as much as they conceal. We heard from the Department for Education that “fairness and flexibility are at the heart of the government’s plans” for this year’s grade awards. We should be comforted in being told that we have gone “above and beyond” to support pupils through the pandemic, that teachers – “those who know them best” –  will use their “judgement” to “determine student grades”. 

And yet, increasingly, we see not support, but departure: the politicians and their special advisers slowly leaving the room. They’re packing up, planning their holidays for 22 June. By the summer, they won’t be here.

More absence. More words emailed to us from afar, more out-of-office assistants clicked on across a string of laptops that link Ofqual and the DfE homeworkers. And all that just as we, the students and staff, prepare for whatever July and August will bring us, with student appeals, contested grades and universities struggling to cope with over-demand. 

And there is that one single sentence in Gavin Williamson’s announcement: “No algorithm will be used.” It stands proud, principled: reassuring us that, rather like reading that no animals died in the making of the sausages we buy, we can proceed with a nice, fuzzy, ethical feeling that this will be a fundamentally humane process. 

But, like the making of sausages, deciding grade distributions is not a process that benefits from full exposure. Sometimes concealment is a kindness.

Those five words, insisted on, no doubt, by the enfeebled secretary of state, bring together the world of schools and the world of politics. And it is a car crash. 

How, we shout at our screens, can any moderation take place? Where, we say to ourselves, will consistency be? What happened to standards? If some schools inflate their grades, where does that leave the many who will strive to be fair? 

Did the lights just go down? Is it getting darker? Where is the secretary of state? What’s he up to? Who’s done this enormous whoopsie on our carpet?

A comedy, tragedy or farce?

Read the headlines in this week’s press and see them as something grimly hilarious or uproariously depressing. You take your pick. The Guardian reports on teachers being given “sweeping powers” to decide students’ grades; the front page of The Times, more prosaically, tells us that schools have to “work out” their grades. 

Either way, it is difficult to imagine many teachers, gifted with the love that the secretary of state has just dumped into our laps, celebrating this new-found respect the government has for us, or the superpowers that we are now invested with.

How convenient it is that right now, after years of OCD-like levels of control from Whitehall, and in this moment of national crisis when schools need real support and leadership from those in positions of power, ministers finally realise that it is teachers who are best placed to sort it all out

Mollifying phrases from schools minister Nick Gibb, promising “quality assurance”, “detailed guidance”, “consistency right across the system”, mean nothing. Just words, words, words, written on a website; a trusting, encouraging smile that stays, as the rest of that Cheshire cat disappears into another absence. 

Teachers will try to do our best. We always do. And, right at the heart of this, we will attempt to accurately represent the work our students have done under almost impossible conditions, isolated, struggling to make progress, trying to learn and get to the next stage of their academic lives. Absent from school, but present in the daily lives of their teachers. 

The real sadness is that, with prosaic, careful planning – which should have started a year ago – better outcomes would have been possible. Work could have been set, assessed, standardised, and greater consistency and rigour could have been built into the system. How naïve now to think that such things were advised, were achievable, were ignored.

But we’re in the final act now, waiting for the curtain to come down. The fourth wall was long ago shattered. We’re all in this together, audience and cast alike – but still not knowing, as we go into the final scene, whether we are witnessing a comedy, a tragedy or a farce.

David James is deputy head of an independent school in London. He tweets as @drdavidajames

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