When 30 years of teaching doesn't get you an A*

22nd May 2015 at 01:00
Veteran teacher sits A-level but falls foul of `arbitrary marking'

For many students preparing to take their A-level French exam next month, that elusive A* grade might seem unattainable. But for an experienced languages teacher at one of Britain's top private schools, the same test should be a walk in the park.

A veteran tutor of French and German at Fettes College in Edinburgh, Jeremy Morris, learned the hard way that achieving a top grade is far from a breeze when he sat the exam last year alongside his pupils.

Mr Morris, who teaches at a school that counts former prime minister Tony Blair among its alumni, was so appalled by his results that he has spoken out about the exam marking system. In an essay question about two works of literature that he has been teaching for decades, he received just 64 per cent - the minimum mark for a B grade.

"I've been teaching this for over 30 years," Mr Morris says. "If I can't get it right, how can a 17-year-old?"

Merely `adequate'

In an article published by TES online today (see tesconnect.comnews), Mr Morris writes: "The mark I achieved was just one point better than `adequate understanding; some evidence of reading and research'. Obviously, I had failed to demonstrate any trace of `clear evidence of reading and in-depth research'. Evidently, I am a beta-minus man and lucky still to have a job."

But Mr Morris says he was "not surprised" by his low grade on the essay question, because he had been "anticipating some fairly arbitrary marking".

Although his overall grade was dragged up to an A by higher marks in the rest of the paper, he says he felt he should have achieved an A*. Other language teachers, who discussed the test with him, were "of the same mind" that the marking of language exam papers for many pupils was "unfair" and "harsh", he says.

In his online article, Mr Morris details his experience of the exam. "I went to bed early the previous evening," he writes. "I did not whizz through the questions and leave the examination room early. I took sips of water at regular intervals.

"I planned each response clearly, wrote on alternate lines and in my neatest handwriting. Everything was arranged to make the markers' job logistically easy. My script was `accessible'. I confess to the odd slip in the heat of the moment. I forgot the second accent on vnement in the prose."

Language teachers at Fettes and other schools read his script and said that the marking was "ridiculous", he adds.

Mr Morris believes that the issue of unfair marking is deterring some schools from teaching languages. He says that some schools' senior management teams are considering cutting back or getting rid of language departments because they are "not producing grades that look good in the statistics".

He explains that unpredictable grading is also putting students off. "The irony of the situation is that an examination originally constructed to be more attractive to potential candidates seems to be driving the best away," he writes. "The perceived reluctance to award the top grades, which so many universities require, is a factor that prompts our ablest pupils to opt for subjects with more predictably successful outcomes."

Mr Morris adds that he has since "not been sacked for incompetence" and has applied to become an Alevel examiner after his retirement this year. "I hope I'd be reasonably competent and give a kid a fairer deal than I got," he says.

The Language Trends 2014-15 report, published in March by the CfBT Education Trust and the British Council, finds that "severe and unpredictable marking associated with A-level languages examinations" is a "serious deterrent, particularly to able and ambitious students".

A teacher surveyed for the report said that marking by exam boards was "extremely irrational, meaning that pupils work very hard for seemingly little reward compared with other subjects".

Mr Morris says his concerns are not limited to any individual exam board.

A spokeswoman for Pearson, which owns Edexcel, the board that set Mr Morris' paper, said: "Final grade boundaries are set at a unit (or paper) level only.the candidate received an A overall. We have rigorous systems to ensure candidates get the result they deserve based on their performance in an assessment."

She added that it was "simply not true" to say that declining interest in studying languages was driven by exam marking.

`Taking exams is quite a specific skill'

Jeremy Morris might not be pleased with his result, says assessment expert Alan Smithers, but it is probably to his credit that he did not score as highly as some of his pupils.

"Taking exams is quite a specific skill, and schools train students to do well at exams," says Professor Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham. "He himself, with 30 years' experience, will see the whole thing a lot more broadly."

Mr Morris' "relative lack of success", Professor Smithers says, may have come about because his "wide knowledge" was not matched by his level of exam-taking skill.

Professor Smithers adds that the "subjective" nature of marking literature papers in languages means judgements "may range more widely" than in subjects such as maths.


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