A bit of froth for the holidays. I found myself having the same thoughts I have every Easter break and realised that being an English teacher is part of my DNA now. It doesn’t matter what position you take in a school, your inner-English teacher never goes away.
- It’s the Easter holiday and you are thinking about controlled assessment whilst consuming the last of your Waitrose Easter egg haul. There are still children who were absent, or who missed an hour or two. You need to catch them when you get back. Maybe you can find a way to ring home in the holidays to remind them they need their texts. Maybe you could go to their house to pin them down and make sure they don’t escape.
- You’re panicking because time is going too quickly. You’ve counted how many weeks, no – days – are left before the first exam. And plotted out what you are going to teach lesson by lesson until study leave. Why is study leave even allowed? Why is the iGCSE so early again? How many more Speaking and Listening exams do you have to record?
- You’ve mastered the art of teaching poetry at super speed. One poem a lesson? Check. Two poems if they’re both short? Check.
- You are not free on a Saturday morning between now and the end of June. This is just how it is, right? Other subjects have this too? Lie ins? Who needs lie ins?
- You harbour huge resentment against Maths – the subject and the department. You all face the same pressure in theory. School is measured by Maths and English – making or breaking a school’s reputation. But – you secretly feel a superiority that you’re not ashamed of – English has to deliver not one, but two GCSEs in the same space of time as Maths. Pah. You do it every year.
- You pride yourself on not having taught the same curriculum consecutively since 2004. You don’t understand what Science and Maths are complaining about. Science has stayed Science. Maths has stayed Maths. English, however, is the nation’s political football. And we know how to handle this. What are we teaching next term to Year 9 anyway?
- You quote Of Mice and Men incessantly. Eating baked beans. I like mine with ketchup. Reassuring your partner. You got me and I got you that gives a hoot in hell about us. Asking a sheepish question. George…?
- You wonder whether there’s any need for a new, Summer term notebook. You’ve seen a lovely one and you’re coveting much.
- You own seventeen copies of An Inspector Calls/Animal Farm/Of Mice and Men/Lord of the Flies and Macbeth. They are all on your shelf at home and yet you can never find a copy when you need one. You do have all the copies of every poetry anthology ever published and you’re holding in to them just in case Gillian Clark and Ted Hughes ever come back onto the curriculum.
- You know you’re about to embark on the worst part of the year but you’ve realised that it’s like being in labour. Every year this bit is bloody painful, but when Year 11, 12 and 13 go, you experience a state of bliss that makes you forget. Then you do it again and it’s bloody painful again.
In all of this, we continue reading, teaching, learning and being the best pedants we can be. Because we secretly love it. Even this bit before exams. Honestly.
The return of The Great British Bake Off is a welcome addition to my summer holiday. You can’t beat the unadulterated joy of watching complete strangers bake well. Or, indeed, bake badly. It’s safe to say I have missed the sight of grown men and women weeping disconsolately over a battenburg and I am relieved that there will now be something to tweet about other than English-related minutiae.
However, before GBBO takes over my Twitter feed entirely, I have had a thought. And of course, when I have a thought (it is occasional and should be marked by fireworks and bunting), inevitably there is a blog post of some sort. So, without further ado, it occurred to me, whilst watching the first show of the new season, that teaching is a lot like The Great British Bake Off.
In what way is this true, my dear? Well, teaching is as old as the hills – ask the teachers of Norman conquerors. They must have been in intervention for years, learning English grammar. Can you feel the Saxon frustration, folks? “I just cannot imagine how we are going to get a decent pass rate this year (1066). The influx of EAL students is of grave concern.” I tried to translate that into Old English, but it didn’t work, so you’ll just have to imagine. Well, baking is also as old as the hills: “How are we going to bake good old-fashioned British fare when all these French ingredients are being drafted in? Pah!”
Maybe that’s why I know so many teachers who love GBBO; something in the process reminds them of what they face in the classroom and out.
We all start somewhere. Mixing the ingredients in GBBO reminds me of lesson planning. The recipe analogy is often used when lesson planning is discussed; ingredients, or parts of lessons, must be meticulously measured to ensure a perfect bake. After all, who wants to risk putting in too much flour (teacher talk) as it might dry out the sponge (engagement levels)? Of course, sometimes, you need more flour. It is (and I nod in deference to the traditionalists), a vital ingredient and far more important than all those frivolous cherries on top.
And we all have our Signature Bake, don’t we teachers? That lesson you roll out because you know it is spectacular and you’ve taught it before, so many times. The bake has been good, the students have made better than expected progress, there are no soggy bottoms (students coming in below a Level 4 have been more than catered for) and your sponge on this one is definitely not dry. You have engaged in whichever way is appropriate for your challenge. Here, I feel it is my duty to point out that it’s not a good idea to turn students over to tap their bottoms to check progress. That’s not okay.
Moving swiftly on, you’ve definitely cracked the behaviour of the cake. Obsessive oven-watching is reminiscent of behaviour management in classrooms. You’ve set the temperature, you’ve established a time for baking. And now, when all is done, you are waiting (the equivalent of sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of an oven door), waiting to that cake to rise – to expectations.
You’ve already dealt with ‘decoration’. You’ve definitely got a preference: Powerpoint, SmartBoard, Promethean, sturdy old chalk and slate, but your resources are prepared. Damn, that bake is going to look good after it has made progress. Like student books. Flawless icing on the cake.
Everyone hates the technical challenge. It’s the exam preparation of the Bake Off. It is the English Language controlled assessment of BBC One. No one knows what they are doing and they keep checking other tables to see if they’ve got it right. I despair.
The process needs Mel and Sue. Think of them as Bake Off Assistant Principals in charge of Teaching and Learning. They come round, on their ‘baking walks’, offering advice and support. You need them because they function as mocksted inspectors; it’s a formative evaluation of the bake/lesson, sampling your off-cuts, critiquing the decoration, asking about your soggy bottom. They are never needed more than when you experience The Great Cake Drop – when a lesson goes wrong and it’s almost unsalvageable. Mel, Bake Off SLT with experience of this kind of thing, can offer consolation. Sue, a joke and some whisky, probably.
The show has its own form of Ofsted inspection in the quite glorious shapes of Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry. If you like, they are the summative inspectors – coming in with a day’s warning to prod your cake and raise a brow. Brought round to each ‘table’ by a nervous looking Mel and Sue, they impart their own wisdom. They’ve been doing it for years, don’t you know. Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry: Cake Inspection Team. Never knowingly underbaked.
The question on everybody’s lips is whether we ought to grade that bake. Is it an outstanding bake? Does that word even work in teaching or baking? What does it mean? It is a good bake? Is it a bake that requires improvement? Will the baker go into special measures?
The show wouldn’t be complete as an analogy without its nod towards performance management. Star baker – give that person a TLR. Going home? Suggest that they find ‘employment’ elsewhere, out of sight of cake-trays and KitchenAids.
Ultimately, GBBO reminds me that I may have dropped my cake, made more than one dry sponge, had a few soggy bottoms and been harangued by the Paul Hollywood of Ofsted inspectors (actually not true – no one has those crinkly blue eyes on the Ofsted team), but sometimes – just sometimes – I make an amazing cake. And those students eat that cake right up. And I take my apron off, wipe my floury brow and know I am okay to bake another day.
Now where did I put my icing spatula?
Heads of English across the country must be feeling more than a little hard done by this evening. I certainly feel it and what’s worse, nothing I say to my students makes the fact that they didn’t achieve the grade they were on track to achieve any better. After all, I may be annoyed by the grade boundaries changing in English, but they have been on the phone checking to see whether they can still go into further education.
Changes to the grade boundaries in English have turned GCSE results day into a mini-clearing frenzy for A-Level courses that should have been ready and waiting for some students. The frustration they feel is horrible to watch and we, as their English teachers, can only watch and wait to see whether the decision to change the goalposts is reversed or ameliorated in any way. For some students who thought they were on track to achieve highly, it may be too late. Their college may have already turned them down, while AQA and the other exam boards, the DfE and Ofqual defend and debate their position on grade inflation. It doesn’t seem fair because, quite frankly it isn’t.
So what is it that has gone wrong? I don’t feel that any teacher in their right mind fundamentally disagrees with the concept of keeping exam marking fair. What grates is the enormity of the changes that have taken place recently in the English qualification. The introduction of controlled assessment has been a mess from the start. I attended several meetings run by AQA in which confused teachers were given conflicting information about how controlled assessment should be delivered and administrated. One examiner said one thing, another completely contradicted it, another shrugged his shoulders and said: “Well, I don’t agree with the way it has to be done, but we just go with what head office ask us to do.” There are details that should have been ironed out – the amount of ‘data’ required for the Spoken Language Study (“three pages” and “one set” and “no more than a side of A4”), the requirements for a ‘plan’ for the controlled assessment task (“a side of A4”, “not too detailed”, “just a few key words” and “attached to task” vs “on an official cover sheet”).
No one at the exam board seems to know what is going on. Even simple questions as to whether in a re-sit, the highest grade counts or the terminal grade counts, haven’t been answered exactly, Some schools have been told one thing, others, another.
For me, one standardisation meeting earlier this year stands out. An examiner from AQA said explicitly that if controlled assessment folders combined should reach a particular mark, that would be enough to gain a C grade, as that was what last year’s results indicated. There were at least seven schools represented at that meeting who heard him say that and took him at his word that the boundaries were the boundaries, subject to little or no change.
Standardisation materials and previous grade boundaries are used to indicate what grade a student might achieve if they have a certain level of skill. Schools are issued exemplar material to show what is expected at the different levels of attainment. What is the point of those, if within the space of five months, the grade boundaries are altered beyond all expectation?
It seems that the massive change in specifications and the introduction of controlled assessment, combined with pressure from the DfE to ‘control’ grades has inadvertently or otherwise shown that the exam boards cannot cope with their remit. And it is not the exam boards that suffer.
The important numbers have been splashed across network news – the gist of it is that if you submitted your controlled assessment and sat the exam in June (at the end of the series – something that Michael Gove has been recommending for a while now), the grade boundaries were significantly higher than if you did the same in January. I do not accept the argument that grade boundaries have been adjusted to account for the two different ‘series’ or sittings – with no indication that this was going to happen. I do not accept that the grade boundaries have to change significantly between two exams in five months – the papers were not that disparate in level of difficulty. What is worse for is the situation with controlled assessment – if you handed in the same tasks, with the same mark scheme used in June as others had done in January, you did not achieve the same results. If the tasks haven’t changed and the mark scheme hasn’t changed for the controlled assessment between January and June, why have the boundaries changed? It is very simple to me, as it must be to many English teachers out there. It is an arbitrary change designed to prevent accusations that GCSEs are too easy.
In saving themselves, AQA and the other major exam boards have damaged students chances of future success. What’s in a C? It’s not just a measure by which schools are placed in league tables – it is a passport to further education and higher education. Some people argue that GCSEs don’t matter anyway. However, in a climate of fierce competition for top university places it, GCSEs matter more and more. Some university courses look closely at GCSE results, particularly when deciding between A-Level candidates with similar grades. Medicine and Law courses often place GCSE requirements underneath A-Level entrance criteria.
More than anything, schools place enormous amounts of pressure on students and staff to achieve those C grades. That often means weekends, revision sessions after school, phone calls, extra materials, blood, sweat and tears to ensure that each child fulfils their potential. We pride ourselves on being accurate in our predictions and realistic in our expectations – we don’t predict Cs when they aren’t deserved. To have months of hard work on the part of staff and students washed away by the whims of an exam board that is creaking under the pressure of its own revolution is heartbreaking for all, especially when so much rides on the outcome.
There are voices asking for a review – Stephen Twigg has said that there should be an investigation by the Parliamentary Select Committee – but I’m not holding my breath. I’m needed in September to teach another cohort of GCSE students and my demise now would lead to even further instability.
The question that is hanging over our heads now is extremely demoralising. Next year, when we teach the specifications again (in their newest incarnation), can we with any level of accuracy say to a student that this is a C grade piece of work?
Well, no, because I thought I knew what that was – now, I can only say, this might be a C grade, or it might be a D grade – don’t ask me, because the exam board might decide I’m wrong. I don’t really want to see the look on that child’s face when I basically admit that I have no idea anymore.
If there’s one thing English teachers should read before they go back to work on Monday, it is the Ofsted document entitled ‘Moving English Forward’. It is always interesting to hear what Ofsted inspectors think of any kind of lesson, but nothing really prepared me for the full, unadulterated gamut of emotions I felt whilst absorbing this new missive. I laughed, I cried, I threw it across the room and hurriedly retrieved it, cradling it protectively in my arms like it was my own child.
English lessons aren’t the easiest things to plan because the study of English is so open to interpretation. Schools of thought over the years have focused on seemingly opposing approaches – the grammatical, technical, literacy not literature approach versus the creative and therefore nebulous, content and enjoyment-based approach. This dichotomy can also be named the Michael Gove approach versus Michael Rosen approach. I don’t think there’s an English teacher that manages to combine these things all in one go on a daily basis. The sub-sections of English teaching mean that, quite often, planning a lesson becomes an awkward juggling act, trying to equally balance rigour, monitoring, assessment and progress with fostering a love of the text, the spoken and written word. I love English teachers. We are conflicted individuals who deal with the most fundamental aspects of society and we do it every day, not without complaint, but with a distinct feeling that if we keep trying to create the perfect lesson, medium term plan, curriculum map, one day it will materialise in front of us. Then we can retire, or go into consultancy.
Where does the conflict come from? Well, we didn’t become English teachers because we enjoyed learning about semi-colons and split infinitives. Most of us, I imagine, came into teaching because we loved our English lessons at school, because we loved reading and because we wanted to help little people love those things too. Unfortunately, that illusion was shattered for me early because I was told that the most important thing about my lesson (in my head, so much like Robin Williams’ in Dead Poets’ Society, standing on tables and all) was that I should be able to demonstrate that the majority of my pupils were making better than expected progress. I was told that Ofsted wanted to see pupils making progress, even in the 20 minutes that they might be in my classroom.
No one said anything about making sure that they enjoyed the learning, or that pupils should show depth of understanding. The de facto position in lesson observations in two out of my three schools has been that progress is a limiting factor – in essence, if progress was deemed to be satisfactory, the whole lesson would be graded that way. This is not a concept I disagree with, but it did lead to some interesting developments in my own teaching. I slowly eliminated my guilty feelings about skimming over the surface of a poem so that I could teach students to analyse lexical choices to get a C grade. I learned to demonstrate progress within 20 minutes, with advice I was given by people much more experienced than I was in the field. From ‘make a student stand up and recite the learning objective when an inspector walks in’ to ‘subtly engage a student into a conversation about the level they were working at in a lesson’, from ‘stop what you are doing when an inspector walks in and make students check their learning’ to ‘always squeeze in peer or self assessment so you can demonstrate progress’. The list goes on.
So, this is where I come back to the ‘Making Progress’ document. Imagine my surprise when the document outlined a lesson that I instantly recognised as being one that I would teach. Lesson objectives, starter, card sort, identify devices, mini whiteboards, criteria, samples from work, evaluating effectiveness linked to criteria, produce writing, peer assess. Sounds like my life. Except, dear people, Ofsted now say that this was not an effective lesson (quite rightly) because it “concentrated on the pace of activities rather than the pace of learning”. I’m sighing even as I write this. Was this kind of lesson not inevitable when progress became a limiting factor? Ofsted, you created the problem you now seek to address. Some may argue that this view of lessons, in particular in English, may not be an Ofsted-generated issue. Whether or not that was their intention, schools interpreted Ofsted’s wisdom in many ways. Like Voltaire (and Uncle Ben in Spiderman) said: “With great power comes great responsibility.” When you take into account the anecdotes of feedback from Ofsted inspectors on English lessons, you can’t really deny that fact. The most recent example at a friend’s school involved an inspector stating that any lesson where the 20 minutes included extended discussion or writing would immediately be graded ‘inadequate’. This was this year, post January 2012 Ofsted guidance being issued. English Teachers have become used to creating mini English factories, a production line of activities sequenced so that at any point, one can stop and demonstrate progress.
In what I can only imagine is a tongue-in-cheek, aren’t we so funny subsection of the guidance entitled ‘Some common myths about good teaching’ (you jokers, you), Ofsted declare that the reason that the teaching in English has improved but the learning hasn’t, is that teachers do not allow sufficient time for extended reading, writing or discussion. Poems are taught for their component parts, texts read in extract and personal response jettisoned for the more measurable skill of analysis of words, structure and style. GCSE skills that lead to C grades, for how else is a school judged other than by league tables that demonstrate only a school’s ability to teach to an exam?
After Ofsted reveal the essence of a good English teaching, my favourite bit of the guidance is encapsulated in the immortal line: “Teachers need to remember that it is unlikely that all these features will be found in a single lesson.” They are absolutely right, of course. What is difficult to gauge is a teacher’s individual ability to disregard the last ten years of advice and guidance about what constitutes a good English lesson and go left-field, teach a lesson in which an Ofsted inspector sees students discussing their personal response to a text for twenty minutes or more. Bravery exists in many forms and one of them is holding your nerve whilst an inspector takes notes on a lesson that goes against all the advice you’ve been given in your career. Sounds it like it would lead to sweat patches.
If it sounds like I’m throwing down the gauntlet and challenging all English teachers to do this; that’s not my advice at all. I’m firmly holding the aforementioned gauntlet in my hands, surveying the lie of the land and deciding where to toss the thing. I think in that time, we should have a few more Ofsted publications to peruse and yet more advice to heed. Wait and see, people, wait and see.
Right, I’m off to plan the perfect lesson. See in you in a few hours?