Cast No Shadow

Once a year, the good folks of Pennsylvania watch a woodchuck emerge from its burrow. If there’s enough cloud cover to prevent it seeing its own shadow, spring is imminent; otherwise, it returns to the hiber-hole, trailing in its wake the belief that winter will last for another six weeks.

To those who do not work in schools, Results Day is little more than a fixture in the calendar of Silly Seasonality. Press photographers cajole students into throwing their grades in the air, like they just do/n’t care. Middle-class blondes, refugees and twin geeks* are deemed equally telegenic for a day. (N.B: * must have spookily identical grades in the spookily identical subjects their schools/parents/schools, most probably, encouraged them to take, having caught the distant scent of publicity on the wind). Heads and ministers congratulate everyone on securing them their next pay rises or, as it’s publicly known, “a job well done”.

For teachers, however, it’s a day that divines and defines the character of the forthcoming school year. At a “rapidly improving” member of an esteemed chain, a department head, who received scarcely a word of thanks for overseeing a marked rise in results last year, was summoned to the Principal’s office as soon as it became clear that this year’s porky-pie-in-the-sky targets – drawn up, as the HoD had repeatedly emphasised to deaf ears, with no reference to the cohort’s ability – hadn’t been met. For students, too, the stakes are high. At the same institution, those with the loftiest grades were handed their results in envelopes a fetching shade of Camera Flash White; others were ushered through a side door and, like bit-part players in a Hal David lyric, instructed to carry on walking – a mere two weeks before the start of a new term. I guess “rapidly” is spelt with a ‘b’ in these parts?

We know about the prominence given to students with unbroken strings of top grades and places at approved universities. And, unless they’ve behaved disgustingly to all and sundry – a genuine rarity – no-one I’ve met begrudges them those moments of glory on the school website, during which they pretend to know who the head teacher is, while s/he pretends to give a damn. But most of us have, simultaneously, felt a stitch or two of guilt about the other students we’ve taught whose achievements are less enthusiastically vaunted but just as hard-won: the students who’ve worked their derrieres off to rise from predictions of G to actual grades of D, finding at the end of it that their efforts merit not a millimeter, never mind an inch, of a column.

In common with many teachers, I was every bit as proud of my ‘alternative curriculum’ students as I was of those in my concurrent top set. With their heady cocktail of social, behavioural and emotional needs, and target grades at the bottom of the scale, the former somehow emerged from two years of GCSE with a maturity that offset their humour and vivacity the way gold does the brilliance of diamonds. All of them achieved grades significantly above those predicted – several of them, the magic Cs – and not one failed to proceed to college for further qualifications.

That includes the student who was awarded the school prize for English Literature, and the one who agreed to be tutored by post in the months leading up to the exams, when her pregnancy took a turn for the difficult. As the head teacher rattled off pass-rate percentages to eight, congratulatory decimal places, our faculty was advised that the school was unbothered about the primigravid “and her like”, all of whom had been advised to seek other institutions in which to continue their education. Unsurprisingly, none of them made it onto the website – which is as predictably rum as yours truly after several mojitos and a Jean Harlow.

This year, however, it’s another group’s fate that’s proven vexatious: the GCSE candidates who all but burned themselves out, in their efforts to move to other sixth forms. Who’ve exceeded target grades and met the general entrance requirements but, having fallen slightly short of those for a proposed A level, have been prevented from taking the subject – even though their cases were easily explicable. One, for instance, who dropped a grade in Further Additional Science, had no subject teacher for Year 11 and resorted to teaching himself. (Indeed, with an entire class facing the same predicament, his school did as it knew best and renamed the problem. Thus was its uncanny ability to send staff fleeing for the antipodes no more: one person’s escape from a hell-hole of a job; another’s “independent learning opportunity”.) He’s opted, at the last minute, for a different sixth form altogether, where he’ll be able to take the subject he needs, and of which he is more than capable.

I’m not unsympathetic to the enforcement of entrance criteria. Not when I’ve worked in a school where senior staff held the door open to anyone who fancied a pop at a subject, regardless of their grades. With faculty heads banned from enrolment days, even prospective students who fell miles below minimum requirements were told that “It’ll be fine, I’m sure” by one bloody idiot or another. This might have been less of a problem if: a) faculties hadn’t been subject to 100% retention targets, with student losses resulting in financial penalties (that Merc isn’t going to pay for itself, you know); and b) all comers hadn’t been promised that, if their teachers were doing their jobs properly, passes at certain grades were guaranteed. This is, I believe, what’s known as the “Seat! Quick! Bum!” principle of recruitment. Or “Two bums”, if feeling ambitious.

However, so fearful have sixth forms now become at the prospect of anything less than assured outcomes, there’s little appetite for taking a punt on a promising student who, having had a scuppered year, landed a little wide of the required mark. With that and sparky originality deemed too risky, schools are, instead, admitting only those conscientious enough to write down and repeat almost every word their teachers utter. The folly of which becomes painfully apparent when coursework is submitted for marking, bearing phrases such as “toilet parts to fore and aft” divested of the inverted commas in which they were originally delivered.

Time will tell how accurate Punxsutawney Phil’s predictions were this year. Indeed, in only a few months, we’ll be ready for his next annual attempt at clairvoyancy, after which he’ll return to his abode in Gobbler’s Knob for another year. No inverted commas required.

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About Joe Allardyce

Joe Allardyce has been a teacher for more than fifteen years. State and private; secondary and primary; man and woman: Joe has been there. Perhaps not the last one. View all posts by Joe Allardyce

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