5th June 2015 at 01:00

Exams in a tailspin? We told you, pilots are key

The news that the reformed maths GCSE is in trouble could have been predicted as soon as Ofqual decided not to undertake pilots or other tests of the new exams. As Richard Pring and I argued in TES last year ("Without a pilot, exams will crash and burn", Comment, 12 August), pre-testing is essential to avoid problems. This has now been underscored in a disturbing way.

This is not a "race to the bottom" (one of the government's favourite accusations) - three of the boards were found to be offering exams that were too difficult. In fact, they were presumably responding to political pressure from Michael Gove, who initiated the move towards tougher exams.

The news that ministers are "keeping a close eye" on standards is ominous. Regardless of what is wrong with Ofqual and its performance in the exam reform process, its independence is vital and may have been compromised by political pressure.

Professor Alan Smithers accused Ofqual of "circular logic" in testing the exams on current GCSE pupils, yet there is no other way that the problems could have been discovered. Had Ofqual not finally carried out pre-tests, the exam course would have started before these issues came to light. It is as absurd to argue that only students of new syllabuses can take pre-tests as to say that piloting airplanes can take place only when pilots have learned to fly them. All test pilots go up in planes that they have never flown before.

A-level reform was saved by the A-level Content Advisory Board; the GCSE reform does not have such a body and is thus seriously flawed. Teachers should consider the IGCSE instead.

Trevor Fisher


The benefits of mentoring go both ways

Like Radheka Kumari, I participated in a reading mentoring scheme during my time at sixth form ("Learning life lessons from reading", Professional, 29 May). Each sixth-former was paired with a low-achieving Year 9 student and read with them four times a week. Like Radheka, too, I was apprehensive about meeting my student for the first time. I expected him to be uninterested and thought the upcoming months would be extremely challenging for this reason. How wrong I was.

My student welcomed the support, arrived early to every session and frequently thanked me for my help. We lost touch when I left sixth form but I bumped into him again two months ago. He thanked me once again, telling me that he had passed his English GCSE and was studying to be an electrician at college. Then it was my turn to thank him: for his positive attitude, his hard work and for simply allowing me to accompany him on an incredible journey.

Taking part in the scheme led me to pursue a career in teaching - as long I pass the skills tests, I will begin my PGCE in September. I would recommend student-to-student reading mentoring to all schools, not just for the boost in literacy but for the many social benefits for both parties.

Katie Alexander

Beccles, Suffolk

Unqualified staff work at every school

One criticism frequently levelled at free schools is that they have the option of employing unqualified teachers. Yet in regular state schools, many children spend many hours being taught by teaching assistants who have not spent four years studying for a professional degree, do not have a degree in a national curriculum subject and do not have the professional expertise of a class teacher.

The intuitive responses that make successful teachers successful are the result of thorough training and reflection. Receiving instruction on how to deliver intervention programmes does not constitute an ability to teach.

Louise Knight

Supply teacher, Devon

The real test of learning isn't Sats

Concentrating on Sats may well improve test scores (teaching to the test tends to improve performance), but at what cost to children's overall education?

Improved performance does not necessarily equate to better learning and understanding. Furthermore, these tests are based on outmoded theories that erroneously assume learning is linear, predictable, hierarchical and easily measurable. Concentrating on Sats seriously constricts the curriculum as other crucial areas of young peoples' learning - particularly social and creative - are neglected because they are not tested. What is needed is far-reaching assessment for learning, not a narrowly conceived assessment of learning.

In short, to judge a teacher or a school on Sats results is a nonsense - they are not fit for purpose and should be scrapped.

Alan Goddard

Former headteacher of Mayfair School, Darlington

Breaktime is broken, but we can fix it

As Nancy Gedge states in her article "Stop playing around with our breaktimes" (Professional, 29 May), not all children like going out to play. Reading this reminded me of the poem Complaint from Please Mrs Butler by Allan Ahlberg.

One reason given for breaktimes being shortened - or, indeed, done away with altogether - is behaviour issues. It is not surprising that young people find it difficult to behave when they are thrown out on to a small area of tarmac, in large groups, with very little to do for half an hour or more.

Fortunately, some schools take this time seriously and plan stimulating, well-resourced activities for both inside and outside the building. In these schools, children are respected and trusted to occupy themselves purposefully. Just ignoring breaks is not enough: after all, "all work and no play..."

Frederick Sandall

Retired headteacher

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