What keeps me awake at night - Not for the love, but for the targets

13th July 2012 at 01:00

It seems British summertime was waiting for exam season before it made its appearance. It didn't last, but for a short period the sun beamed down as sweaty GCSE pupils trooped into the school hall to prove their, and our, worth.

Peering through the door, I cast my eye over my Year 11s as they laboured over their English paper and wondered how much of that dogged preparation had actually hit home. I wondered if they had remembered the characteristics of each of the writing styles that we had so painstakingly taught them. And more importantly, had they remembered their semicolons, which feature at the top of the mark scheme we had taken apart piece by piece in class only the week before?

Realistically, I'm not sure how much of this would have sunk in. Let's face it, mark schemes are never going to be of interest to your average 16-year-old, who was probably only nodding along while peering surreptitiously down my top or mooning over the new pupil in the classroom across the corridor.

I hope they listened, because it matters; not just to them, for whom it could form the basis of a long line of future dreams or disappointments, but for me, too.

With the pressure to get 40 per cent of pupils gaining five good GCSEs including English and maths, our inner-city department walks on a knife edge of grades. A bad day, a fit of pique, a sulky tantrum (pupil or staff) could mean one fewer C grade, and something for me to explain away in September.

Recently, John Cridland, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, warned that teaching to the test was stopping teachers from "delivering an inspirational classroom experience". Maybe he has been spying on me, as I think I may have forgotten how to teach pupils to do anything at key stage 4 besides use good exam technique.

I exaggerate, but the fact is that teachers are too frightened of being held to account to let go of the GCSE exam reins and ditch the mark scheme for the sheer love of literature. Yet, while only 6.5 per cent of children who start secondary school behind their expected level go on to achieve five good GCSEs, no one seems to ask why they are behind. Surely these figures pose more serious questions about how society fails certain groups of people; how a young person's life chances can be made or destroyed before they even set foot in school.

I'm not sure whether it's because teachers are an easy target or because most ministers have no idea how the other half live, but before the exam papers have even been closed it seems that blame has been neatly parcelled up and labelled for when GCSE results arrive.

The writer teaches English in the East Midlands. To tell us what keeps you awake at night, email david.marley@tes.co.uk.

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