What keeps me awake at night

11th March 2011 at 00:00
Anonymous views from education's front line. This week: a science teacher at an 'outstanding' secondary

I cheated last week. My boss wouldn't think so; the kids don't realise. But that is what it feels like. On our current specification, a quarter of a student's grade comes from their "controlled assessment" results. Most of these marks are from an exam based on an investigation. We see the paper in advance because students in different classes sit the exam at different times; mine did the day before I wrote this. The exam board clearly recognises the issue because to get marks worth an A* in the modules you need about 65 per cent, whereas for this it is about 95 per cent.

There is a lot of pressure here - as at most schools, I suppose - for students to succeed. We have had the whole-staff meeting where department scores are compared, and as one of the subjects making up the English Baccalaureate we are particularly aware of the consequences. We are used to the resits (about four in every five candidates did at least one this year) even though we don't like them. I object to the lengths we go to, not least because we have to mark extra controlled assessments in our own time.

I decided that I wouldn't give students the "mock" paper our department head produced as he had effectively copied the questions from the real thing. I thought that was a step too far. I thought my conscience was clear.

The truth became evident when I glanced through the paper as the students completed it. Certain phrases stood out for me, questions about accuracy and precision, gaps for them to fill by calculating an average. They were familiar because I had made sure I covered those areas; on some level I remembered them from the last group who did that paper. Is it cheating when the hints were subconscious? Does it matter what I said when all they needed to do was ask their friends anyway?

As soon as students have to do exams, teachers end up "teaching to the test". We know the results matter, so of course we want them to do well - even when it feels like they don't. It is made worse by having such frequent assessments. By the time my Year 11s get their results this summer, they will have sat at least 13 science papers and perhaps as many as 17, not including their mocks. In two years, the biggest gap between exams is three-and-a-half months. It never feels like there is time for something which won't show up on the exam. And once those exam results matter to the school the pressure is always going to be much greater.

It leaves me knowing that if I don't see the exam papers beforehand, I'm putting my students at a disadvantage. If I see them, it is hard not to emphasise what they need to know. It still feels like cheating. And somehow, "everyone else does it" doesn't sound any better from a teacher than it does from a student.

To tell us what terrifies you or to share the unscripted events that have happened in your classroom, email letters@tes.co.uk.

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