'Everything and everyone is sacrificed at the altar of A-level league tables'

12th September 2017 at 12:17
Sixth-forms have become businesses with teachers desperate to get students through the door, writes one teacher

Last term I resigned from my role as part of a sixth-form leadership team after 10 years of becoming increasingly unhappy with the sixth-form model. 

I have decided instead to rededicate myself to teaching my wonderful students and try to resist becoming overwhelmed by my dismay at what sixth-forms have become.

Given my experience, I was not in the least surprised to read about the controversy over St Olave's grammar school in south-east London, where parents threatened legal action against a move to exclude pupils who failed to get A or B grades in their mock exams. In its obsession to chase ever better A-level results in the school league tables, the school refused to allow around 16 pupils to return to upper sixth.

Despite the shock and awe that greeted the news, St Olave's isn't alone in treating individual students as collateral damage in the desperate bid to look good in the league tables. In a culture where targets and grades are now prioritised over everything, most schools I know do much the same – albeit with more subtlety than St Olave’s.

There was something quite nauseating about watching politicians queue up to lambast St Olave's for the cameras – this climate that sees students as dispensable is actually thanks to Labour and Conservative governments. Both governments created the new performance measures under which schools will do almost anything to be at the top of the league tables.

'It's like Stalin's Russia'

In this new culture, exam results are all, and everything is sacrificed at the altar of performance indicators.

It is these accountability measures that gave rise to this perverse scenario – a well-known school threw 16 of its pupils under the bus in order to maintain its "impressive" position in the A-level league tables.

Most schools are guilty of massaging the data to look good in the league tables. Those of us who work in schools know that the data is about as honest and reliable as it was in Stalin's Soviet Union during his five-year plans.

Faced with ever greater intimidation and threats to meet their unrealistic targets, Soviet factory managers and workers lied and falsified the paperwork to keep the wolf from the door. The same happens in schools today.

Under pressure from above, fiddling the data as best you can is commonplace. What drives schools now is not the quality of education, but accountability measures and targets.  Outsiders may think such accountability improves education and drives standards up, but many teachers know that the reality is different.   

Teachers are seeking to improve results by any means necessary, and schools are removing students from a school halfway through an A level – our education system is under extreme stress. We've seen the human consequences of this high-stakes accountability system in those students cast aside from St Olave's for not making a B grade.

The sad fact is that both students and teachers suffer under this current system, and teachers are ever more estranged from the idealism and love of the subject that brought them into teaching in the first place.

Instead, under the weight of performance targets, they are increasingly forced to teach to the test.  

'Demoralised and disillusioned'

Take the start of the new school year.  

Most schools will have had two days of Inset before the pupils arrived. I have a question for the teachers reading this article: how much of that time was spent discussing knowledge, ideas and subject content, or debating effective ways to engage and stimulate this year's cohort of pupils?

The depressing answer is little or none. Instead, the vast majority of time is spent pouring over exam data and analysis, which many teachers struggle to comprehend.  

Step forward the school's data manager – the expert who will interpret this mountain of data for us. He or she will tell us whether we have met our exam performance targets and whether our residuals are good enough. If not, we teachers must feed into the performance management system all the steps we are going to take to meet these targets in the coming year. The whole process is superficial, disingenuous and mechanistic – a million miles from what a real education should be about. These measures, initially imposed by politicians, are selling teachers and students short, stripping us of our autonomy and professionalism.

When you hear your teacher friends talk about being demoralised and disillusioned by teaching, this is why.

The real irony of the St Olave's story is that in shining a light on one ugly aspect of sixth-forms today, it disguised the other big story about A levels –the collapse in academic standards.

Deploying the egalitarian language of "social justice, access and inclusion", many headteachers have lowered the entry criteria allowing pupils to study A levels. In some cases, sixth-forms have done away with any academic criteria for entry altogether. Headteachers may use the language of social justice and social mobility, but at the coal face, it has far more to do with other factors, including straightforward economics. Each new A-level student equates to several thousand pounds of funding for the school. In an era of budget cuts and financial restraint, schools are packing young people on to A-level courses when in many instances they are not ready or suited to the academic demands of A levels.

Teachers are then presented with the unenviable task of trying to teach students on the A-level courses who are out of their depth and unable to cope with the demands.  

We are given unrealistic calculated grades which we are expected to help these pupils achieve. Stressed-out teachers faced with pressure to meet a set of "residuals", quite frankly, panic at times and, sadly, many would be quite happy to lose struggling pupils who are clearly not coping.

'Decisions dictated by financial and political imperatives'

The second reason is that new government rules require that pupils remain in education, employment or training until 18.

Many sixth-forms have, in effect, been redefined as "holding centres" where tens of thousands of young people are corralled into A-level courses with little thought as to whether they are the best route for them. Rather than offer wise counsel to pupils to pursue other work or training opportunities, many sixth forms have been turned into businesses with the teachers acting as sales people desperate to get maximum bums on seats to keep Ofsted happy and make sixth-forms financially viable.

When the novelty of sixth-form wears off, many young people find themselves trapped in subjects they have little interest in and without sufficient motivation to do well.

They often have to cope with the impact of failure when they were never likely to succeed in the first place. Of course, the teacher can turn some of these young students around and we dream of transforming the lives of young people by inculcating in them a love and passion for subjects. But, even at our best, we will not achieve this with every struggling student.

Once again, left to their own devices, experienced teachers are well qualified to make judgments about which students will embrace A levels and sixth-form life. But that kind of autonomy has disappeared in schools. Such decisions are no longer made by pupils and teachers but dictated by the financial and political imperatives imposed from above.

We need to have an honest conversation about what we think education is for and where we think A levels fit into that picture. Some, of course, will defend targets and argue that the collection and monitoring of results is the way to identify weaknesses in teaching and drive standards up.

St Olave’s has provided a window into a world where well-intentioned systems have started to turn sixth-forms into something that few of us are proud of.

It doesn't have to be like this though. An alternative world is possible.

What if we get back to valuing education and knowledge for its own sake? Imagine if we left it to a teacher’s professional judgment about entry criteria for A levels rather than financial considerations?

Imagine if teachers and students were allowed to teach and study the subjects for the sheer love of it? It sounds like a fairy tale. But it is a conversation worth having.

If a student gets an E grade in their mocks, shouldn't the key question be, "But are they enjoying the subject?" And if the answer is "yes", shouldn't we allow them to continue on the course? 

You never know, freed from the pressures of having to deliver 90 per cent As and Bs for the league tables, teachers might even get to do what we all go into education for.

We might even change a mediocre student into a wonderful student and watch education transform their lives.

Cieran Mooney is a pseudonym. He is a teacher at a high-performing secondary in South-East England

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