When last year’s crop of Year 11s open their envelopes on GCSE results day this Thursday, they will be the first to see a mix of numbers and letters. But they will also be the first to have the closest thing we can get to a level playing field in English.
Say the word "coursework" and I will shudder; mutter the phrase "controlled assessment" and I am likely to experience palpitations.
I was fortunate to work in departments with excellent teachers who all strived to make these assessments as fair as possible for the students. However, that understanding of "fair" would vary from school to school.
The more we pressured teachers to get high grades out of the students, the more we saw the rules pushed to their limits, and the more we saw students experiencing different interpretations of the rules in classrooms across the country.
The teachers who bent – and, let’s not mince our words, in some cases, broke – these rules, did not do so in some Machiavellian scheme to improve their pay: they did it because they thought everyone else was.
No tears for controlled assessment
So when English GCSE broke up with controlled assessment, I was glad. I did not weep. I did not play my Gloria Gaynor CD and rip up front sheets while eating my weight in Dairy Milk.
Oh no. I cheered when I realised I would never again have to pick a treasury tag through a sad bundle of papers and have mini meltdowns every time I thought I’d lost a folder (it was always stuck to the last one in the pile. Always).
Because I’m a killjoy? A pedantic stickler for the rules?
No. Because I have been faced with classes of fresh-faced sixth formers entirely out of their depth at A level, clutching a fistful of C and B grade GCSEs that don’t match their ability.
And what happens to those children? They drop out, unable to keep up with the rest of the class. They feel like frauds as they know their teacher gave them three chances to rewrite their controlled assessment. They have unrealistic expectations of academia and think cheating is OK, and go on to cheat again and again until they are caught and punished.
GCSE results that employers can trust
If a student has the wrong grade on their certificate, then the person who has been cheated the most is the student themselves.
This year we know that students who sat their exams in Northumberland had the same experience as those in Cornwall, and those in Norfolk had the same as Shropshire. There were no teachers who turned a blind eye; there was no submission of Shakespeare coursework as an "oral presentation" (not recorded, of course), and no gaming.
Of course, I know the new system isn’t completely fair. The calibre of teacher, the hours of contact time for the subject, the use of tutors… all of these are variables that we cannot control.
However, there isn’t much the exam boards can do about that. As much as they can be, the results students receive in their envelope this August will be a reflection of their ability, and one that colleges and employers can trust as measurements of their suitability to move on to their next stage.
Grainne Hallahan has been teaching English in Essex for 10 years. She is part of the #TeamEnglish Twitter group
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