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Teacher failure that turned a grade on its head;Sounding off;Covering the syllabus;Secondary;Opinion

As teachers we all describe ourselves as professionals. However, in some cases, I feel we let our students down. Let me explain: I do a lot of private tuition and I want to tell you Peter's story.

Peter is a bright, hard-working boy: his school predicted he would get AAB grades at A-level. He proved the school right with two As but his chemistry result was a disappointing D. His classmates also achieved poor results in chemistry, although Peter was the only one to lose his first choice university place.

With the headteacher's backing, his parents asked for a re-mark of the chemistry papers but the exam board stuck to the D grading. When Peter came for his first lesson, he showed me the letter from the board and it suggested that while many of his answers were satisfactory, some were wild guesses.

As a tutor, I always insist my students buy a copy of their syllabus and some past papers if the school does not provide them. When we looked through the syllabus, we spotted the major cause of Peter's poor grade: several topics had not been mentioned at all.

Due to staff illness, Peter had been taught by no fewer than four chemistry teachers. But those four teachers had a duty towards their students which was not fulfilled. Adequate records of work covered should be kept by each department so that new staff can see exactly what is still left. For exam courses, the simplest way is probably to tick off and date each section of the syllabus as it is finished. The advent of modular courses has made this easier. This "Master Syllabus" could perhaps accompany the register to lessons. When staff changes occur, the headteacher must appoint someone, probably the head of department or faculty, to monitor the progress of exam courses. By February it should be possible to tell upper sixth pupils whether there will be time to finish the syllabus in class. To keep students in the dark is both unfair and unprofessional. If we find it difficult to explain the situation truthfully to our classes, surely something is wrong in our relationships with these pupils.

Teaching, especially at A-level, must involve a partnership with students. Asking them to work through some topics on their own is preferable to keeping them in ignorance. This can then be followed by practising questions from past exam papers to make sure everyone has understood.

Teachers who take over exam groups in mid-stream may have to work harder to make up deficiencies. Extra classes may have to be slotted in. Management should be ready to offer any support needed, including extra payment for the teacher.

Peter's story has a happy ending, because after a term he re-sat his papers and now has a grade A. But we must not forget that his school let him down. This resulted in extra tuition costing pound;600, and he had to take a year off before university. Perhaps Peter's school should be grateful that his parents did not try to recover these costs through the small claims court!

Mary-Jane Jeanes

Mary-Jane Jeanes is a part-time tutor and former head of chemistry. She is also an examiner for GCSE science

* If you have a strong opinion on a curriculum issue, write to Brendan O'Malley, secondary curriculum editor, TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY

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