The luck of the draw

22nd March 2013 at 00:00

Our bottom-set students did surprisingly well in the January English exam. Judging by the exam board graph that measures your school's performance against the rest of the UK, we're looking pretty good. This is down to my head of department. She decided that if Romanian circuses can teach bears to ride bikes, we can teach Set 10 students to balance sentences around semicolons.

It was a bit of a cosmetic job; like Sarah Beeny putting an Airwick in the hallway of a skanky house. Nevertheless, it worked. The writing marks were fabulous and the students were giddy with their attainment. But because English is trapped in a Narnian winter where students are always sitting exam units but never get results, they were only given raw marks. Their grades won't arrive until August, when AQA pulls the magic lever to see who gets three plums.

Trying to explain this to the students is hard. They wave their marks under my nose and ask if they have achieved a C. The answer - "Yes, if you'd got that mark last June" - seems as ludicrous as texting a pony. Even worse is my suggestion that we should "revisit" their controlled assessments just to be sure. Their expressions betray the contempt this deserves; they would sooner visit the school yard wearing fluffy mittens, balaclavas and a Slanket. "But you said that they were OK." "Yes, but that was only relatively speaking..."

It's not easy explaining that their final English grades depend on how far other schools are prepared to game the system. Once exam marks have been entered into spreadsheets, English leaders across the land will know exactly what each student needs to hit that magic C. Then they will pump up the volume of their controlled assessments so that our students' exam successes will be lost in the overall din.

It's not a fair system. In fact, since controlled assessments came in, English has become less about teaching texts and more about brokering commodities. Once the value of exam stocks go down, teachers simply reinvest in their centre-assessed units. It's like a game of Monopoly. Once your opponents have taken Park Lane and Mayfair, the only option left is to stack up houses on Old Kent Road. That way you can still win, as long as the moderators don't peer too closely at your marks.

You only have to track last year's speaking and listening grade boundaries to see that this is happening. In June 2012 you needed 28 marks for a C; by November you needed 30. Either the children spent the summer at Rada or their teachers buoyed up their grades.

Given pressure like this, it's no wonder English teachers are the most conflicted people I know. We want to behave honestly, but with an in loco parentis albatross dangling around our necks we fight viciously to protect the grades of every child we teach. And that takes us into some dirty places. How dirty is a matter for debate. Where does good practice end and cheating begin? Is it turning a blind eye to excessive notes? Or mouthing "Use capital letters" to the child with SEN at the front? Or semaphoring "Lennie was the one with the mouse" with your eyebrows? Or is it handing out detailed paragraph plans and dictating the stuff verbatim?

In truth, few of us have any faith left in the specification. When it walks like a C and talks like a C but it isn't a C, then the specification is well and truly fucked.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the North of England. @AnnethropeMs.

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