Reality dawns with results day

15th August 2008 at 01:00
The weight of achieving the near-impossible has finally left its mark on one department head

Many teachers are evasive on results day. There was a time when I freely volunteered to hand out results to pupils, assisting with the exam secretary's job of supplying this vital information as quickly and efficiently as possible. But bitter experience has made me wary. I found myself in the firing line, facing sobbing students as they saw their disappointing results, and then running the gauntlet of irate parents as they demanded to know why their marvellous offspring hadn't got super- duper grades.

Recently, I have opted for a more secretive approach, sneaking into school by the back door, usually in the quiet, empty afternoon of results day, after all the pupils and parents have vanished in clouds of congratulation and commiseration. With trembling hands, I will collect the bundle of results from my pigeonhole, then scan them quickly, checking to see that there haven't been any major disasters.

At my school, a high-achieving comprehensive in outer London, this means looking for grades from D to G. At previous schools, the threshold was lower, and I scanned for F and G grades.

I always check my own results first. Having taught secondary English for 16 years now, I have noticed that my results do follow a familiar pattern. I can nearly always predict my GCSE grades; there are rarely complete surprises, except pleasant ones such as seeing that some weak pupil has scored more highly than I thought they would - and possibly more than they deserved. As is confirmed by the national statistics, increasing numbers of pupils are crossing the vital C grade threshold at GCSE.

My A-level results always contain the odd anomaly. Since the introduction of the new A-levels with Curriculum 2000, in which pupils take three "modules" in Year 12 and another three in Year 13, re-taking as many times as they want throughout the course, there has never been a year when we haven't queried our results. Sometimes it is clear that a set of papers has been absurdly overmarked (in which case we keep very quiet!) or, just as often, pupils' work has been miserably undermarked, in which case angry letters are fired off to the exam boards and re-marks are demanded.

The key stage 3 English results are never predictable. I think most schools now regard them as something of a joke because they are so inconsistently marked. To be honest, I hardly worry about them on results day. However, the KS3 results do have a big impact on my professional life: my department is often judged harshly because of them. The value- added system of measuring departments' achievements means that the KS1 and 2 results are compared with the KS3 results. As is the case throughout the country, my secondary school fares poorly in this regard: a group of pupils appear to be making unsatisfactory progress during their first three years at secondary school.

As head of department, this amounts to significant pressure on me at the beginning of term. Like most heads of department, I have to write a detailed analysis of my results and present my findings to the head and my line manager - a deputy head. Invariably, champagne bottles are not popped open at these sessions: pats on the back for the good results are brief, while the troubling statistics are chewed over endlessly throughout the year. In these days of performance related pay, I am aware that my wages are dependent upon meeting specific "hard" targets - improvements throughout the whole department are expected.

The whole of my performance as department head is reviewed. Do I know precisely where and why pupils are underachieving? Am I supporting my staff properly? Am I writing helpful, regular evaluations of my teachers' work? Have I surveyed pupils to see what they think helps them to learn? Are a variety of learning styles being deployed in the department?

Recently, I have felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. I am responsible for the English results of more than 1,000 pupils. Sometimes I feel I am accountable for every misspelling, every misplaced comma and full-stop, every book these pupils haven't read, every essay not marked.

Even though the Government claims that teachers no longer have to do any administrative tasks, the reality is that a head of department's time is still consumed with ordering stock, shifting books from room to room and filing bits of paper. We haven't been freed up to tackle underachievement: we've just been ordered to do something about it.

Like many colleagues, I have cracked up under the pressure. In January, shortly before my 40th birthday, after being head of department for five years, I slipped a disc - caused partly by shifting lots of heavy stock around the school - and was in such pain that I re-evaluated my life. I didn't want to do this any more: it was a thankless task. I decided to accept an offer of going part-time, give up my duties as head of department and pursue my interest in writing and research during my time off. I didn't want to be dead or half-dead at 50.

However, I will be continuing as head of department until a suitable replacement can be found. Advertising during the summer did not produce many applicants, and no one was appointed to step into my knackered shoes. Apparently, there is a real shortage of middle managers in the core subjects of English, maths and science. When I speak to other teachers, I realise why this is: none of them wants my job.

Nevertheless, there will be a spring in my step this results day because I know that shortly, I will no longer be responsible for achieving the impossible. Soon, I will be free to concentrate upon what really matters: my own teaching, my own development, and my life.

`Parent Power: the Complete Guide to Getting the Best Education for Your Child' by Francis Gilbert (Piatkus Books)

Francis Gilbert, Head of English at a London comprehensive school.

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