Problems with the script ruin the performance

7th November 2003 at 00:00
Of all the tasks facing English teachers, setting fair, effective and informative assessments is the most difficult. And yet we allow two examinations in Year 9 and two more in Year 11 to count as definitions of a student's ability and achievement. Over the years, the arguments against Sats especially, and, to a lesser extent, the way GCSEs are structured, have been rehearsed and ignored - to the exasperation of working teachers.

So much so that it looks likely that there will be a boycott of them next year.

Until now, I have had mixed feelings about this. To some extent, I have found the Sats results useful. They provide a standardised text against which to judge aspects of progress. Given a modicum of common sense, they are informative for students, parents and the school. They provide a motivational impetus which has made teaching Year 9s easier and more meaningful.

This year, it is clear that the pressure on the exam board has resulted in serious mistakes and the wholesale loss of confidence in the system. No one wants to mark Sats. Teachers are too busy in May, whereas GCSE marking, slave labour though it is, comes after the Year 11s have left and pays for the holiday. The outcome is that standards of marking are variable. This is fatal in a system which purports to be a setter of standards.

This was exemplified by our scripts this year. Usually we perform well.

English reached 60 per cent at level 5 last year after several years of steady progress, an improvement mirrored in maths and science. This year, we were shocked when maths and science improved again and English slumped to 50 per cent.

When we examined the scripts, it was clear they had been heavily penalised according to the letter of the mark scheme instead of according to the positive spirit of generosity which has always permeated the marking of English, partly because it is so nebulous and often subjective.

Normally, we might have shrugged off this anomaly. But we work in a school under pressure because GCSE results deteriorated last year and we are near the bottom of the league tables in our authority. After a considerable amount of work, we sent them for remarking. Then we waited. And waited.

Finally, the results arrived in the second week of the new term. More than 60 pupils, more than 25 per cent of the total, were awarded the next level.

In the meantime, the parents had been told new sets for Year 10 GCSE courses had been formed, some using the information from the Sats, and I had been through the process of becoming an advanced skills teacher. This time last year we were undergoing an Ofsted inspection.

I am not hypocritical enough to suggest that this has been traumatic.

However, it has undermined what little confidence I and my fellow English teachers had. What does concern me is that we might be in danger of throwing out the baby with the bath water.

There is room for a standardised test. It should complement the assessments of teachers and include a portfolio of the best work produced by the student throughout key stage 3. The work should be moderated and teachers trained. It probably needs to happen at the end of Year 8.

But the test should not be cobbled together by an examination board put under intolerable time pressure by a government more interested in getting elected again than in educating children - which is what we voted for in the first place.

Kevin Fitzsimons

Kevin Fitzsimons is head of English at a comprehensive in Hull

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