We’re all in it together

I’ve seen a few posts recently from Primary teachers, almost knocking Secondary teachers. The worst of which were implying that we didn’t teach them much at all because GCSEs weren’t as hard as the Sats and a particular favourite doing the rounds this evening was that the list of terminology for GCSE is the same as for the Sats, which is bizarre as the English GCSE isn’t a feature spot qualification, and if there is such a list, then perhaps the teachers actually teaching it might have seen it. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m just as appalled at the Sats content as anyone else, but I guess when people feel threatened they try to find something to fight against, and so to me, this seems to be the secondary school teachers. So I wanted to clear up a few facts, in the hope that we might all join and realise that we are in this big mess together. 

At the same time as there have been changes to Sats qualifications, secondary schools have begun the first year of teaching the new GCSEs in Maths and English. I’m an English teacher, and for us that has meant a year of teaching 2 qualifications consecutively, one of which has a coursework component, whilst the new one doesn’t. The new GCSE is such that students will sit nearly 8, yes 8 hours of exams in one subject alone. I believe that it is a pretty similar amount for Maths too. That’s even before you add in the other subjects students will study. 

The qualifications are rigorous. In the language paper, students will have to analyse extracts from the 19th century. Yes, that’s right, a LANGUAGE paper, not a Literature paper, although the Literature paper itself also comprises a 19th century novel. The exams are closed book, so students must know a Shakespeare play, 19th century novel, modern prose or drama and an anthology of approximately 15 poems, basically, as much as possible, off my heart. They certainly need to be able to quote from each of these texts. Students more than ever before, need a rich contextual knowledge and vocabulary. In order for students to have a good shot at passing the GCSE, this needs to be in place as early in their lives as possible. English departments everywhere, are changing their KS3 units in order to accommodate the skills and contextual knowledge that students need. There is no time to accept they have a less thorough contextual knowledge of the world, or a more limited vocabulary. We need to teach them it, and quick. 

The exams do not simply require feature spotting – in fact that will gain very few marks – instead students need to analyse texts in terms of language, structure and form and have strong skills in opinion and criticism. Basically, it’s much harder. Add to the fact that the grades have gone and have been replaced by numbers. English teachers everywhere are trying desperately to work out where a level 5 (what will be the new accepted standard) actually is, and it’s not the old C grade. It’s higher. We are faced with the sad fact that, much like Primary, we will have a year that will fail. Results are predicted to drop across the country, but we, like primary teachers, are working at full pelt to give students a fighting chance. 

I posted a photo of a student’s handwriting on Twitter the other day. I desperately want to help them and was overwhelmed with responses from Primary colleagues giving me helpful and useful advice and resources, for which I am exceedingly grateful. 

What I didn’t post on Twitter, however, was the fact that the student in question received a level 4 for both their writing and reading Sats, even when there were some slightly condescending remarks about students going backwards at secondary with handwriting. I assure you, this student arrived like this. After several months hard work, they have now gone up to a reading age of 8-9. Progress. Now we need to concentrate on their writing more deeply. 

Now anyone looking at that student’s writing would see they weren’t a level 4, or at least not how would we would assess writing at secondary. Because of their Sats result, they will be targeted a 4/5 at GCSE depending on how high/low the 4 was. If I keep that student for the entire time, that is what I will be expected to get them at GCSE. Like many across the country, my performance management is, in some part, based on results, so basically my pay rise hinges on it. Now I could be angry that I was faced with such a task, based on a SATS level which was clearly not representative. But I’m not. I just get on with trying to unlock the issues and help the student I have in front of me. Because that’s my job and because I want to help that student; that’s why I am a teacher. 

So you see, it is tough. Very tough. It is tough for all of us. So instead of pulling each other apart and claiming that each of us has it harder than the other, perhaps we should remember that we are all in this together. Yes the system is challenging at the moment, yes we are all faced with seemingly impossible tests, but the last thing we should be doing is pulling each other apart, because that’s what THEY want. Let’s think about what we can to support each other through these difficult times. Let’s have a bit of understanding that education in its many forms is tough right now. The best thing we can do is support, not knock down. 

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