All the things we don’t do

I’ve kicked the habit
Shed my skin
This is the new stuff
I go dancing in, we go dancing in
Peter Gabriel, “Sledgehammer” (1986)

I’ve almost done it. I’m almost over obsessing about GCSE results day. Shedding this addiction has taken me over twenty years. My habit started with my first Year 11 class as a new teacher. Back then it wasn’t a destructive addiction; I was driven by the satisfaction of seeing students get good results and how pleased this made them. Then, as I became responsible for the results of more students, some of whom I didn’t teach and possibly didn’t even know, individual results started to be swept aside in favour of the statistic. The numbers became very important because someone would ask me why they weren’t good enough, or give me a pay rise if they crossed a particular threshold. There were many people complicit in feeding my addiction along the way. I don’t blame them. They had their own problems; someone asking them the same questions. One day I woke up and found myself responsible for all those numbers. And there was no longer one person asking me ‘what went wrong’. Now there were governors, Ofsted, parents, the media, other schools all pawing over these numbers. GCSE results day had morphed from a moment of sharing in another human being’s delight and relief in to an existential event when I would ask myself repeatedly “what does this all mean?”.

I’m not sure when I kicked this habit, but I think I have. There was no Trainspotter, cold-turkey event, no sudden epiphany that this whole self-destructive charade was completely insane (which it is). I think that, over time, my cynicism about the education policy in this country has made be belligerently reject other peoples’ expectations of what people in my position should think and do. I refuse to continually fall in to the traps that are laid for me. I suspect that this is a moment that everyone reaches in their career, when they have enough experience and perspective to genuinely think for themselves. It is the phase before they become inflexible, stuck in their ways and irritating to younger colleagues. It is called middle-aged. It feels liberating.

The moment of realisation that my obsession was over came the day before this year’s GCSE results were released. All over Twitter, teachers and headteachers were complaining of sleepless nights ahead. I won’t pretend I felt no anxiety, but I knew that whatever the results were we had done our best and what we felt was right. I knew that some things would probably not go well (I’ve never known a GCSE results day where everything turns out exactly as expected), but that these problems would be sorted. I knew that whatever happened this year we would learn from it and move on. I knew these things not because of some gift I had suddenly acquired which enabled me to transcend mere mortal concerns but because I’ve lived the drama so many times and, you know what, the world never ends. I slept well that night. My wife told me that I wasn’t a ‘proper headteacher’ if I slept well on exams-eve. Maybe not.

I realise that not everyone can adopt this privileged nonchalance. For some headteachers GCSE results are career threatening. For those working in schools in far more challenging circumstances than I do the pressure of results day is, I imagine, almost unbearable. This highlights the inequality and absurdity of our education system. No-one should feel such a level of anxiety about one set of results.

Our obsession with GCSE results is unhealthy and destructive. It causes schools to act in all sorts of ways that, I believe, are not in the best interests of the staff or students. It is really hard to resist placing the aim of ‘increasing results’ above all else. It is even harder to make choices which you know are right for the students but may actually limit exam success. In the school in which I work there are many things we don’t do which might make our exam results better. That sounds perverse and irresponsible, but it isn’t.

Here are some examples of the things we don’t do to improve exam results.

We don’t make students take particular subjects at GCSE. They have a free choice. We have this policy because we believe that students should study the subjects they enjoy. We guide students in this choice. For some it will be wise to take a foreign language, for others a range of arts subjects may be appropriate. The consequence of this policy is that we do not steer students in to courses with the aim of benefiting the school rather than the individual. As a result, our EBacc ‘success’ fluctuates significantly. Last year, over 50% of students achieved the EBacc threshold, this year less than half that. That doesn’t mean the school’s performance has ‘declined’, it means the cohort made different decisions, had different needs and aspirations.

We don’t make students sit qualifications to boost school results. In 2017, one in three students nationally took the ECDL qualification (an IT course which counted as one GCSE in school performance measures). The course has some educational value, but significant doubts were raised about its equivalence to a GCSE. I know of one school that put the whole cohort through this course in two intensive weeks, which tends to suggest that the doubts are correct. As a result, the qualification will not count in this year’s performance tables. We entered no students for this qualification. Had it been the right thing for some of our students we would have done. It is estimated that schools like ours, who entered no students for ECDL, will achieve a higher Progress 8 score of around 0.1 points this year. Automatically. For doing nothing different. Remember this when someone tries to tell you that the Progress 8 score measures an individual school’s effectiveness.

We don’t make students only do qualifications that ‘count’ in the performance tables. We are a rural school and as such have delivered various horticulture courses for a small number of students over the years. Such qualifications no longer ‘count’ in performance tables. We will continue to offer this course. For the students that take it, they might have achieved an additional GCSE, but they would lose out on learning valuable skills and knowledge.

We don’t run compulsory after-school, lunchtime or holiday revision classes. We believe that for most students the teaching they receive in the scheduled curriculum should be enough. There is a place for targeted support for individuals and small groups, but we maintain that the widespread use of revision classes is counter-productive. Investing large amounts of teacher time in such programmes means less time can be spent on other things. There are three things I would prefer teachers to spend their time on. Firstly, delivering extra-curricular activities (clubs, trips, events). Secondly, planning really good lessons. Thirdly, working a little bit less than they otherwise might. We might get better GCSE results if we ran a comprehensive revision seminar programme, but at what cost? I believe the cost would be spoon-fed students, tired teachers, a narrow educational offer and lower quality lessons for all the other year groups.

There are many other things we don’t do. As a result, our headline figures probably suffer. Since the introduction of Progress 8, our value added is in line with the national average; a score of about zero. This means our students achieve exam results in line with what you would expect given their starting point (KS2 scores). Had we done everything possible to raise GCSE results over this period we would perhaps achieve average results of a fifth or a quarter of a grade higher. For the individual student, this might mean an extra GCSE (that ECDL qualification, for instance) or a grade higher on a couple of their courses. But if this comes at the cost of studying courses they didn’t choose to take, feeling that they were dragged through GCSEs rather than achieved through their own efforts, missing out on great experiences and being taught by over-worked teachers then is it worth it? If your aim is to raise results at any cost then any action that increases grades is logical. However, if your aim is to deliver a quality education for students which leads to a solid set of results, and doing so with principles, then some of the things we do and have done are questionable.

The decisions we have made will not be right for every school. The point is that the choices we have made we believe to be right for our students and this is the basis for the decisions, rather than doing things with the primary aim of raising exam results per se. It may be the case that taking firm action to significantly increase exam outcomes is the right thing for your students (for example, where outcomes are historically low), but we should still be sure that the primary motivation is to benefit students and not to maximise school results.

On Thursday morning of this week I was, as I have been on this particular Thursday in August for over twenty years, in school to see students pick up their GCSE results. I’d taken a look at the data; as always there were some pleasant surprises and some odd patterns – plenty to pick over at a later date. This year I quickly turned to the table of individual students’ results and looked for those I knew best to see what they had achieved. I looked for those who had had a really hard year whom I knew had gone through a lot to get to this point. I looked at those who were really borderline for getting the results they needed to do A Levels. Then I watched as they came in to pick up their results. I saw the delight and relief on their faces. I congratulated them whether they got what they wanted, or didn’t. It was just like old times.

Like most headteachers, I’m never ‘happy’ with the results. You always hope that this year everything will come together and exceed all expectations. In reality, some students pull it out the bag and some don’t. Some subjects continue to edge ahead and others see results dip, and are left wondering why. GCSE results are always met with a mix of emotions, never outright happiness. But I am happy with how we got to this point; we didn’t cut corners, sacrifice our principles or sell students short. GCSE results are not an end point or a start point, they are a moment in time. That moment will pass.

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