‘Why teaching GCSEs these days is not so different from goat-herding in Catalonia’

21st August 2014 at 11:00
GCSE results day 2015

Only last week I was lying on a sun-lounger beneath a glorious star-lit sky in rural Catalonia, idly counting those mid-August shooting stars. We were listening to our new friend Alex, local goat herder and astronomer. He knew exactly where all the planets and constellations were, even if he never seemed quite so sure of the precise whereabouts of his 112 goats – come to think of it, it’s probably more like 109 by now.

GCSE results day might initially seem light years away from that carefree evening, though the contrast is perhaps not as great as we might first imagine. I have seamlessly switched from counting shooting stars to counting A stars to C, and there is similar sense of randomness in the air.

This year, even the orbiting spy satellite that is Ofqual admitted weeks ago that it had no idea what might come burning through the atmosphere this time round, what with all the changes to the exams and to schools’ entry policies. Some might experience a brilliant display but for others, but – as with the English results – much darkness and frustration too.

And is there really all that great a difference nowadays between the role of a goat herder and that of a GCSE teacher? If our friend loses another of his goats to the olive groves and carob trees of Catalonia then it is plainly his fault, not the goat’s. This seems fair. Goats make too many poor decisions to be given too many choices.

It used to be different when it came to teaching students.  If any chose to stray from our path then it would generally be considered “their lookout”. The grade they achieved would fairly reflect the degree of unreliability, indolence or irresponsibility shown. But this, as we know, is no longer how it works today. There is much more shepherding and penning in.

It is no longer enough for us merely to lead, encourage and hope that all will follow closely. Successful teachers and schools today track their students’ movements so closely that any who appear to be heading for the Catalonian wilderness immediately flash up red on our spreadsheets. They go on some kind of list and action plans are put in place to turn them “green” again. They find themselves joining all manner of (compulsory) “clubs” (“catch-up clubs”, “homework clubs”, “support clubs”, “booster clubs”) during their lunchtimes, after school and sometimes in the holidays.  

This change has largely been for the good, of course. There was plainly too much school and teacher shrugging of shoulders in earlier decades. For many students a school’s new level of control over their learning has helped take out of the equation the many negative influences on performance resulting from difficult personal circumstances or a lack of adolescent maturity. It has helped many students today achieve much better results than equivalent students from earlier generations.

But what concerns me – for what it’s worth – is whether this high degree of control over students’ exam preparation is truly educating and equipping them in the best and broadest possible way, whether for further study or for employment. Schools understandably have to put their priority on driving grades upwards (as that is how they are currently ranked and assessed) but I wonder what the additional cost is in terms of developing more independence, creativity, personal and social initiative and responsibility. What’s happened in schools has been great and admirable, but only within the confined definition of educational “success” today.

So I wish heads luck with their broader “alternative” league table this autumn, including other achievements and experiences in schools. I would humbly suggest one change to the plan – lose the league table bit. Otherwise there will be a “Duke of Edinburgh Catch-up Club” before we know it.

Related links

TES GCSE results day coverage

Schools 'shocked' by fall in English



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