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'I've lain awake every night since GCSE results day, agonising over the unfairness'

Nancy Nicholls, head of English at a school in Bournemouth, writes:

I am a head of English and have recently started in a new school. Having taught in my previous school for 15 years I was determined to see my Year 11 students through to their GCSEs and was able to begin my new post in June.

I was really excited for my students this year. They had all passed their GCSE English literature in Year 10 with good grades, and we had been able to focus completely on the English language in Year 11. I worked exceptionally hard for them and in return they worked really hard for me, meeting deadlines, listening, concentrating and, as a result, many began to produce superb pieces of writing. They were enthusiastic, they were positive and they trusted me.

Then goalposts started to change. Having worked extremely hard and spending a great deal of time preparing for the speaking and listening component, we were told that it would no longer count in their final grade. Suddenly the written examination became even more important – that was fine, I thought, as we had plenty of time to prepare and practise for it, and they had coped well with the literature which was all assessed under examination conditions. But to find out halfway through the course that the assessment structure had radically changed was, frankly, appalling.

The students stayed enthusiastic and positive, and did everything I asked them to; the best-ever group of young people. They produced fantastic controlled assessments and my team spent hours poring over their work to make sure that we had applied the criteria properly. We were extremely confident as we packaged up the sample and were proud to submit it.

Then came results day. I looked on the eAQA website to see how my students had done and have never felt so devastated. Out of the 60 students who took the examination, only 40 had passed and nearly all of them had failed to achieve their target grades. I investigated further and found that the examination board had reduced every single controlled assessment grade, despite having seen only 15 of them. We have never had English language grades changed before. And their unit one performances were not great either. The results were inexplicable.

Luckily, we had entered the rest of the cohort into the IGCSE Cambridge examination, and they did much better, resulting in an overall rise in English grades for the school. However, that is little consolation when I think about the hard-working, talented and hopeful students who had worked so hard only to be denied even the golden C grade in English, which they need so much these days.

I have lain awake every night since results day, agonising over the stark disparity and unfairness. I know that the students who took AQA English language were treated appallingly by the examination board this year and yet there is little that can be done. I thought it was in their best interests to let them take the traditional English language GCSE and I was so wrong. Now many will have to retake next year and I feel responsible. I have lost all faith in the system.

Related stories: 

Schools reeling after ‘clobbering’ in GCSEs - August 2014

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