The race to the bottom

17th August 2012 at 01:00

At the end of last term I was tired. Really tired. Not just the type of tired that makes you struggle to get up in the morning. But the type of tired that finds you crawling into the fetal position on the sofa in your pyjamas.

During the last academic year I was in charge of 85 pupils gaining their English, English literature and drama GCSEs, all of whom will be getting their results next week. My fatigue did not lie in the poor behaviour of these pupils, far from it. It lay in the fact that assessment-obsessed pupils have learned that doing well in their exams means becoming dependent on us. The system has taught them to look to us for the answer, instead of creating a process to find it out for themselves.

It seems that the GCSE system has become not just a race to the bottom, but a race to be most compliant. The more compliant a pupil, the more they adopt the GCSE assessment objectives, the more they succeed at the exam. And the more they ask of us, the more they become compliant.

Like a skilful dentist I have extracted rotten answers, drilled to hit the nerve endings of understanding and occasionally to fill gaps of knowledge. Was I guilty of telling them the answers? In one lesson I was. We had run out of time on a poem, and I was forced to dictate the "meaning". It felt dirty but it had to be done.

Like the traveller in Ozymandias, I looked on the works before me, but I was the one despairing. I thought about the colleague who told me that one of her pupils had calculated the percentages and decided not to revise the second section of his maths exam because he would gain his target grade if he scraped a B on the first section.

I started thinking about all the pupils who were on the GCSE merry-go-round, resitting their exams in November, January and June. "Step aboard, ladies and gentlemen. Would you like the chance to do something over and over again? Are you bored with the idea that you should learn to work towards something through integrity and diligence? Would you like to learn to be disappointed when you realise life doesn't give you second chances like your GCSE courses did?"

Michael Gove is right, there is a race to the bottom between competing exam boards to dumb down exams, but I'm not sure he understands how quick the race and how deep the bottom. We need a complete transformation of education before it is too late; not just the sticking plaster of new exams.

Although I am politically against the idea of a two-tier education system, in many ways we already have one, although it doesn't work. If we already label our young people at 14 with an H or F band how different will the new labels be?

Imagine if vocational qualifications were really engaging, with proper training that inspired pupils to use their practical intelligence. Vocational qualifications should demand high standards, to give young people pride in their work instead of feeling they are being shunted into cattle class.

And for the A* pupils? Let them sit an exam where the teacher kindles the flame of learning and is not forced to drip-feed ways to respond to crippling guidelines. Let's establish an exam where independent application of knowledge is at the heart. The good news is that in the race to the bottom, there's now only one way to go.

Amy Winston teaches English at a comprehensive in the West Midlands.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today