When 30 years of teaching doesn't get you top marks

29th May 2015 at 01:00
Veteran teacher sits exam but falls foul of `arbitrary marking'

An experienced teacher at one of Scotland's leading private schools could be forgiven for assuming that securing a top grade in an exam sat by students would be a walk in the park.

But Jeremy Morris, a veteran teacher of French and German at Fettes College in Edinburgh, has hit out at the exam marking system after learning the hard way that it is not.

Mr Morris (pictured, far right), whose school counts former UK prime minister Tony Blair among its alumni, took an A-level French paper alongside his students last year as an experiment. In an essay question on two works of literature that he has taught 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?"

He suggests that marking policies could be a factor in the waning popularity of languages in schools.

Uptake of languages that have traditionally been dominant in Scottish schools has declined in recent years. Scottish Qualifications Authority figures show that the number of students taking a Higher in French, the most popular language, fell from 4,577 in 2009 to 4,157 in 2014. Proportionally, Higher German suffered a greater decline, from 1,261 to just over 1,000.

Merely `adequate'

In an article published on the TES website (read it at bit.ly MorrisComment), Mr Morris writes: "The mark I achieved was just one point better than `adequate understanding; some evidence of reading and research'. Evidently, I am a beta minus man and lucky still to have a job."

Mr Morris was "not surprised" by his low grade, 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 students was "unfair" and "harsh".

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 the marking was "ridiculous", he adds.

`Driving the best away'

Mr Morris believes 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 which 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 A-level 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".

`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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