English without tiers

24th July 1998 at 01:00
In the week before the GCSE English literature exam this year, as head of faculty I was involved in gathering the folders of coursework selected by the moderator as the sample for inspection. For one of my own candidates I realised that I had given her marks in English equivalent to a C grade and in literature equivalent to a B. For a moment I was pleasantly surprised that she had, almost surreptitiously, made great progress. Less than a year earlier I would have estimated her to be likely to gain Ds at best. Bully for her and some credit to me!

Imagine my surprise and disappointment when I found that she had been entered for the foundation tier in both exams. To all appearances she is a "safe" C and should be sitting the higher tier in both "subjects". Still, I told myself, coursework often flatters to deceive; she might have had some help; exam conditions are entirely different; her weaknesses will come out under pressure; I would not be there to offer guidance.

Convinced? No, neither was I. I was invigilating the literature exam and pondering the circum-stances that had conspired to produce my mistake of judgment. As recently as January, I was certain that this girl was a borderline C. All my instincts and experience told me that we must play safe. All my sense of fair play and adven-ture made me want to weep at the obstinacy and arrogance of a political agenda that ignores teachers' advice. Achieving a B grade would have represented a truly excellent performance from her and me, justifying my approach and methods, re-enthusing me for the job I love doing and illustrating how co-operation between pupil and teacher can work minor miracles.

She had applied all her intelli-gence and discipline, enthusiasm and determination to produce, for her, outstanding coursework. In a few short weeks she had made more progress than in two years. Exams, like death, focus the mind. Unfortunately, the education "system" was going to deprive her of the opportunity to obtain her just reward.

That same day the examination board informed us that the higher tier has now been extended to include grade E. I was speechless with indignation. All credit to the boards for gaining this concession from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Getting the change accepted is tantamount to admitting the mistake in the first place - that the policy-makers did not listen to the English teachers.

Any English teacher will tell you there is no justification for tiering. But no one asked us, and when we said it anyway, no one listened. Until now. But it is too late for the many candidates this year who have been entered for the foundation tier on the basis that guaranteeing a grade is better than risking a total disaster.

Playing safe, defending what we have was too tempting. Weighing the risks is a serious responsibility and predicting performance on any particular day is an inexact science. Ask Glenn Hoddle.

Kevin Fitzsimons is head of English at a Hull comprehensive

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