Ahead of results days, the blizzard of gloomy predictions was a bit like the media storm around the budget. Endless assertions by politicians that the exams were tougher would surely have led us to expect a dramatic fall in grades. Instead, though the hamster wheel whirled faster, the outcomes remained pretty much static.
On GCSE results day there were the usual happy smiles for the camera. It’s always uplifting to feel the sense of achievement from the teachers and students. They always put in a lot of extra effort over the year, but especially so last year as numerical grades became the dominant measure.
Some escalation of time and effort is only to be expected as revision sets in. But what was particularly striking was one interview on breakfast TV with a senior leader. The leader was proud of her school’s achievements and the extra work that had gone into them – to the tune of an extra 45 minutes a day.
On the one hand this represents a heroic effort over a school year to ensure greater coverage of the specifications and opportunities for practice. Such conscientiousness should not be denigrated. But there is a serious issue here to do with sustainability – especially at a time when teachers’ workload is one of the key reasons schools are losing staff.
This trend towards increasing hours is by no means a new thing. For some time now, teachers have been expected by some schools to give up a day in their Easter and summer half-term holidays to come in and provide extra coaching. Some institutions even start after-school revision sessions on the very first day of the autumn term, with weekends increasingly surrendered to exam practice.
Each year more and more vital leisure time is being taken away from both teachers and students. When Ofsted condemned exam-factory schooling, the implication was that students needed a balanced educational experience beyond cramming for qualifications. Adding to the hours spent in the classroom mimics all too closely the excessive hours of factory days in the Victorian era. It also deprives students of downtime in which to switch off and pursue other interests.
What should not be forgotten is that the reformed courses were expected to occupy the same volume of teaching time as the old ones. If extra time is routinely added, either the teaching time is being used inefficiently – hence the leakage into time after school – or the new GCSEs are too large for the timetable allocation.
At the inception of these new specifications, the issue of teaching time was (for want of a better word) overlooked. The 9-1 GCSEs were meant to be more content-heavy: that was always the stated intent of the government, as represented by Michael Gove, the then education secretary. The fact that greater bulk of content and preparation for different questioning styles in exam papers would take longer for students to grasp seems to have passed the reformers by.
While in the past the obvious option would have been to start Key Stage 4 content earlier, perhaps at the end of Year 9, recent Ofsted expectations have put paid to that strategy. Any incursion into KS3 is now off-limits for schools wishing to achieve a high grading at inspection.
The present position is not sustainable in the long term. The expanded content in the new examinations and the new Progress 8 measures fuel competition for league table positions; and the widening expectations of the inspectorate are directly responsible for driving up workload. The messages out there seem to be that only by increasing teaching hours can a school compete.
Before the situation escalates any further, one or both of the regulators need to step in. Ofqual should be reviewing the teaching times and extra time involved in “delivering” the qualifications it has approved. Ofsted, having raised the issue of factory schooling, might be considering how it might assist schools in avoiding it.
Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in the south of England