What keeps me awake at night - Is honesty the best policy?

1st June 2012 at 01:00

It's that time of year again: stressful, prolonged and accompanied by feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy that threaten to eat you up. It's GCSE mark submission time.

I have taught for 14 years, and been head of English for seven of those, so you would think I would be relaxed about the procedure. But alas, the rigmarole of mark submission still fills me with fear and dread. From the day I dispatch the overall GCSE marks to the exam board, I agonise over what we have awarded. Have we been too generous? Did the staff just tell me what I wanted to hear in the moderation meetings? Are the grades an accurate reflection of pupils' attainment?

In schools such as mine, where we hover precariously on the 40 per cent A*-C maths and English borderline, controlled assessment marks have to be the best that they can be. However, combined with the new rules and associated limitations on help and time, it would not surprise me in the slightest if my staff felt inclined to give a more generous mark and plead ignorance of the boundaries at a later date.

With rigorous performance management across most schools in the UK, it's hardly surprising that teachers might lean towards slight grade inflation to boost their classes' attainment. I'm sure they would rather be subject to additional in-house moderation sessions than risk missing their floor targets because of one or two marks. Far from every child matters, every mark matters.

I tentatively posed the question on a teaching forum: how much "extra and illicit" help do we feel tempted to give our pupils? Answers ranged from the shocked "No help at all!" to the shocking "You'd be amazed" variety. In the latter camp, respondents suggested that schools sometimes "help" pupils in controlled assessments in ways that are currently forbidden, offering guiding comments or annotating draft assessments before a final draft is submitted, as in the old coursework days. Against the rules, but not totally surprising.

Others said schools inflate speaking and listening grades beyond the bounds of reality, perhaps in order to compensate for the fact that the legacy loophole of submitting a written assessment as an oral has now disappeared. In the legacy days, local legend had it that a rival school gave their entire Year 10 cohort a more than admirable grade for their first piece of coursework, submitted as an oral, in order to raise aspirations and inflate attainment data. At least the new controlled assessments have closed the door on that opportunity.

The grades are now in and I'm comforting myself that I submitted them in honesty, unlike some poor pressured heads of department. I cannot criticise them; I know the pressures, especially in a school where every pupil equals a 1 percentage point increase or loss and the life chances of pupils are limited. For them, attainment means much more than where they rank on a league table.

The writer is head of English at a secondary school in the East Midlands. To tell us what keeps you awake at night, email david.marley@tes.co.uk.

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