Back in September, I chalked up the days ‘til I could sleep on the wall behind my desk, and began crossing them off one by one. Now that we’ve arrived at half term, I may be a little ‘stream-of-consciousness’. Or just exceptionally in touch with my inner exhausted old git. Apologies for whichever way it goes.
Uncrossing my eyeballs this morning, I read that an alliance of students, teachers and councils is seeking compensation from an exam board that altered GCSE English grade boundaries part-way through the academic year: thousands of students, who would have scored ‘C’ grades in January, were, consequently, deprived of the same in June. As acts of stupidity go, running off with the goalposts during the match is as good as any. Expect the crowd to get angry, and with reason.
I do, however, find myself itching, Vagisil-style, with embarrassingly intimate guilt at this story and all the righteous (in every sense, not just the perjorative) indignation that has preceded it. When students achieve results that fall short of expectations, we justifiably seek redress by asking for their papers to be re-marked. But how often do we do the same, when marks are unrepresentative in the opposite direction? I know I’m not the only teacher to have been stunned, on occasion, by how far above expectations students I know really well have scored. And, tempting as it might be to attribute this success to my unparalleled and magical teacherly powers, reality directs me to more mundane explanations. Given the sheer number of scripts to be graded in a short time, the inflexibly prescriptive character of some mark schemes, and the qualifications demanded of would-be examiners by some boards (“Are they your own teeth, or on loan from a friend? No matter. Come on in.”), it’s hardly surprising that, sometimes, the marking of exams has been, um, wide of the mark.
I was once stupid enough to suggest, out loud, that overmarked papers should be returned for a second opinion with the same alacrity as the opposite would be. It was unfair, or so my reasoning went, to knowingly send students out into the world with inaccurate ideas of their capabilities – especially given the likelihood of contradiction later on. Furthermore, didn’t we have a responsibility towards the next link in the chain, be it employer, college or university? Unsurprisingly, the response this elicited – some elaborate sentence structures, even harder to follow than mine, punctuated by outraged puffing, even puffier than mine – put paid to that proposal. I’ve since heard it said, by a headteacher of an outstanding school, that we have a moral imperative to allow inaccurately high grades to stand uncorrected in times of austerity. Slapped wrists for me, then.
The counter-argument, wheeled out in one form or another for its annual whizz around the block, is the ‘hard work’ thesis: “I don’t think that exams have got easier because I worked really hard for mine”; “Results are rising because students and teachers are working harder than ever” (yessir: see opening paragraph). And, this summer, “It’s so unfair that students who have worked hard have been deprived of high grades”. Nes and yo. It’s unfair that some students were marked more punitively than others because a change in standards was implemented halfway through a school year. Hard work, in and of itself, is not a reason to award someone a high grade in an exam that’s supposed to be an indicator of subject-specific capability. By that logic, I should be given an award for cartwheeling, even though my effortful attempts to execute said manoeuvre involve me keeping three limbs on the ground and waving the fourth like a distress signal. If hard work deserves to be rewarded, let’s introduce a GCSE – or whatever GCSEs are mutating into – in Hard Work.
Still riffing on the ‘surprising results’ theme (I warned you at the start about the likely effects of sleep deprivation), it has crossed my scrambled egg of a mind that students achieving bafflingly good results may, simply, have cheated in the exams. Or been the beneficiaries of cheating by others. I’ve not seen the inside of an exam hall during the summer for a long time – not because of a court order, but because teachers are barred from invigilating. I usually know when the exam season has begun because the loyal regiment of supervisors, who turn up year after year at those times of year, has arrived again. All of the invigilators I’ve known have been former subject teachers, some of them former employees. Dot, dot, dot. Lucky red envelopes. Exclamation mark.
Which brings me – rocking back and forth by now, with dribble (my own) on my chin – to a certain outstanding academy in South East London that trumpets its own brilliance on its brilliant website, reminding its readers that our brilliant Prime Minister declared it to be brilliant. So it must be true. What it doesn’t have on its website are any details of teachers and pupils blowing the whistle on systematic cheating in exams and coursework. Nor is there anything on the ‘News’ or ‘Articles’ pages about Channel 4 News’ special report on the school, detailing practices such as teachers entering the exam rooms, telling students which questions to correct and moderating coursework in such a way that it seemed as if “numbers were being plucked out of the sky”. An oversight, I assume. Nor is there anything about how the results of the exam boards’ investigation into the school will not be published. I guess the allegations must be untrue.
The website does, however, have lots of stuff about the school’s record-breaking results and lovely buildings. There’s even a pod-like assembly hall that resembles an internal organ. Enough bile, Joe. It’s half term. Get thee to a funnery.