Results 2015 (or, ‘I can’t sleep’)

19th August 11.52pm

I can’t sleep. I know as a teacher I am not alone in this. Tomorrow, GCSE results are out at 6am. I went to be early so I could wake up refreshed. After hours of tossing and turning I am resigned to a sleepless night and a day of waking sleep.

I don’t know what to think. I am sad I won’t see you all, so sad. I promised you I would be there when you collected your results, but events have conspired to keep me away. I know you won’t notice. You will have more important things to think about.

I don’t know why our English Language results have gone down so much. I had expected a 5% drop; but never envisaged more than 10%. We did intervention; more targeted and more rigorous this time. We did extra mock exams. Your teachers benefitted from extra confidence having delivered the spec before. I was shocked at the number of E grades-more than our total D grades last year. Besides what this means for the school’s headline figures, I am devastated for each of you who missed that magic C. I am told for many of you had B grades and some even A grades in coursework and speaking and listening. The exam dragged you down. This is little comfort to me, and will be less comfort for you.

I find myself wondering: was maths the same? Did they fall too? And what about English Literature, which you all took? Is there solace to be found there? And what could rises and falls like these mean?

We knew you were a ‘weaker’ cohort. Your SATs results were the lowest we had in the school for any year group. But what does it say about our ability to teach you if results rise and fall with your so-called ‘ability’? Is your fate determined before you even arrive to us, fresh-faced year 7s, hungry for knowledge?

And what of the national picture? Already I know of two other schools: one has experienced a similar drop; one has sustained its performance. This isn’t enough to build a picture of what has happened.

Why can’t I sleep? I can’t sleep because I am racked with guilt. What more could I have done, should I have done? But more than this, my faith in education is shaken. I used to believe we could work miracles with you; that hard work would combat all: low prior attainment and deprived background. I have to still believe this is the case. But the means to achieve this end needs a dramatic overhaul. And I won’t be there to do it. I will be far away, in another school, desperately trying to make miracles happen.

All of you students are miracles. You could not have worked harder. You could not have been more pleasant. You could not have deserved more. You bought in to our every intervention, believing our promises of magic C grades.

We don’t always get what we deserve.

We don’t always keep our promises.

I can’t sleep. It will be a long night, a long day, and a longer year of finding a better way.

The hierarchy of literature

I’m at the start of a dawning realisation: that what I thought was my subject is not my subject; and where I thought my subject, which is not my subject, sat in the hierarchy of subjects is also incorrect.

This may sound garbled, but that’s because this realisation is only beginning to take shape in my misinformed mind.

As a teacher of English at GCSE, I have been complacently used to being at the top of the pecking order when it comes to subjects at GCSE: no, English boosters are that night – sorry other subjects, bow down to the mighty English. That enrichment activity supports English? Here are plentiful funds to ensure it takes place. Let’s give year 11 a massive weekend of revision, and let it be only English (and some Maths).

All of this assured me that children reading books was at the very heart of what our schools are all about (tied only with Maths).

But that’s not it at all.

Reading books, studying great literature, isn’t in fact anywhere on the pecking order. It’s a sideshow; an optional extra. We pretend English is at the core of the curriculum, but what we really mean is being able to read and write. These are the necessary gateway tools to accessing all written material ever – with the exception of troublesome novels, plays and poetry – and this basic literacy is of the utmost importance until students are 16.

It’s not that I disagree with the above at all. I just feel that the reading of fiction is the crucial way in which we make sense of the world, and that the above can in fact be taught most effectively with books, and not Guardian articles.

Speaking of which, my world came crushing down with this Orwellian vision of a literature-less future from Polly Toynbee here. With the new KS4 curriculum, about which I had been so optimistic, Toynbee points out that, as literature has been removed from the language component, while not being made a compulsory second GCSE, children all over the country will be deprived of reading great books.

In my own North London bubble, I know my children will always do literature. Our lucky year 10 and 11 students have 6 lessons of English a week, and are split into tiny classes (7 sets where there could easily be 5) specifically to enable them to study both GCSEs.

But what of those thousands of other children in other schools?

Similarly, having all my life assumed English Literature A-level is top dog in the A-level pecking order, in a natural inheritance from GCSE, my assumptions were cruelly crushed by an esteemed colleague (of Science background) who assured students that, in fact, the number one Arts subject they could study was History.

Where’s History coming from? Why all of a sudden does History get a look in? And if it is the most impressive Arts A-level and most respected by universities, why don’t all students have to take History GCSE with the same fervour we ascribe to English and Maths?

So I’m getting used to my new position in the world of education. Not as imparter of great literature, but as teacher of grammar and spelling, as well as decoding words to make sense of those words.

This new Literature GCSE, wide-spanning and demanding as it is, can and should be taught to all students. Yes, some will need more time and more resources to succeed. But would you send your child to a school that didn’t teach it?

Diary of an English Teacher

The below is a very out of character post for me, comprising what are essentially diary entries surrounding the only thing I have been able to think about all week: GCSE results.

7pm, Benugo, Wednesday 21st August

It’s the day before GCSE results and I am terrified. I have been afraid for this day for what feels like an age, and if I don’t write I will scream. Aloud. In this coffee shop. I come here a lot, so I’m going to write instead.

This culture of results defining kids – for themselves, for the school, for their teachers – is beginning to get me down. I found a picture of my year 11s today, and I found myself looking at each face wondering what their news will be tomorrow. How different their lives will look tomorrow.

And what I remember is their ample success, the success they have banked already. They have studied for 3 years with me, 2 of those years on two GCSEs. We have come through their anger at being in my class –set 2, not set 1, a tough blow for many. We have got through their boundary testing – those year 9 kids were very different to the young women who left in May.

They weren’t a reading class, and at the start I didn’t do a lot to change that. But the class I left had studied some wonderful works of literature: Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Dorian Gray, The Crucible, Robert Browning and individual reading projects of classic texts.

They have written some truly amazing essays: one particularly notable one was at least of A-level quality, but was pegged down three marks in our moderation  because it hadn’t fulfilled all the AOs to the same impressive degree.

When kids write beyond the syllabus, I find it cruel to teach them how to jump through hoops. When they can grasp incredibly complex concepts, what a waste of their time to teach them what an examiner is looking for, rather than the very best way to do something.

I was very inspired by the masterful Mary Myatt’s review here of Martin Robinson’s book, “Trivium”, in particular this:

He took his drama students through deep processes to achieve outstanding results. Consistently among the top in the country. This book and the man need to be taken seriously. He saw what was wrong with the course he was expected to teach. So he got rid of unnecessary homework, ‘writing about misery and colouring in pictures of misery’ and replaced it with a notebook in which students would be expected to collect fragments of writing, experiences, dreams, stories, poetry, lyrics, history, theory.  The material transformed from fragments to connections and became the ‘clothesline on which the lessons were hung’.  ‘I refused to take things students to see things they would normally see, so we never went to Blood Brothers; instead we went to see Beckett, Berkoff, Bausch and Brecht. We would take an unashamedly Socratic approach: questioning, arguing and prompting.’ The exam was a celebration of their exploration – not a jumping through the hoop to get the grades.

This is clearly a teacher who stuck to his guns and taught kids what they needed to be taught. Ofcourse that is how you do it, of course that is the best way. Yet I don’t. Not in year 11, the most important year for growing students, before we cast them to the wide world. I don’t because I know I can teach them to pass an exam, and the other way is a gamble.

Incidentally, my own English teacher told me a story of yore about a genius child he taught, who achieved an A-star in every GCSE except English. He related that he had looked over the student’s shoulder as he was writing his exam responses and described his work as “degree level English”. My teacher believed the examiner might simply not have understood what the student was writing.

Does this sound made-up? It’s a story from so long ago, hearsay, that I don’t want to name my teacher for fear I have mixed details. But I myself taught a sixth former this year. Her ideas and oral expression were phenomenal. Her style was inimitable. I had to unpick her beautifully and effortlessly constructed sentences to work out what she was saying, but I suspected she was just a bit too smart for me. I cautioned her to writing clearly, while also maintaining she needed her own style to mark her out at university. I had her pegged for Oxbridge. She received a D in her AS level. What happened?

I fear for my amazing and intelligent 11s. I know how hard they worked and how amazing they are. I know they know more than enough to achieve double A-star.

But will they have remembered to jump through those hoops?

8.25am, 21 bus, Thursday 22nd August

It feels like I fell asleep about twenty minutes before my alarm went off. Hitting refresh on e-AQA for the 6 minutes before results were officially available paid off, as only three minutes in I had my answers.

It’s a strange one. Over the two GCSEs, over 28 students, only one achieved a C – the rest were A* to B. Sounds good right?

I’m not sure how my students will feel. My 6 or 7 best deserved an A star, and the fact that not all were even cripplingly close is disappointing. There are also so many more B grades for Literature than I expected; I had heard it was more easily marked, and certainly we spent class time revising Literature (not Language) to the extent that I wasn’t entirely sure my class would all pass the latter.

I can’t wait to see the students and find out what they think, but overall I feel deflated. Last year the majority of my class exceeded expectations. Not this year. Perhaps that is the curse of having a higher achieving group of students to begin with: you know they will be fine, and there is numerically less room for them to fly above expectations.

5pm, Southbank Centre, Thursday 22nd August

Coming to the end of a long and emotional day. So many students were delighted with their A grades, and due to almost no one getting above a B for the poetry paper we are having lots remarked from my class, which could swing some students towards the grade they deserve. School is happy – we have smashed all previous A* to C (including English and Maths) records.

Going in meant seeing students who hadn’t known I was leaving, which was horrible. When they mentioned it, they tended to ask: “how long have you known for?” I am chronically unable to lie (this has been and continues to be a massive hurdle in my teaching practice) and I couldn’t face the awful truth of how long I had been duplicitous, so I mostly shifted uncomfortably.

Following results, I enrolled students onto our sixth form. I had the pleasure of seeing some of my own students, for whom the world was mostly their oyster, as well as some heart wrenching moments with other students, watching their closely held dreams, usually of medicine, coming to an end.

The whole thing has been so emotionally stressful for all involved. And these students will do it again next year. And the next year.

Perhaps there is a better way. I think I need a few paracetamol, a good night’s sleep and then a long think.

12.30pm, dining table, Friday 23rd August

Nope, still got nothing.

In Praise of ‘Of Mice and Men’

I’m aware that this post’s title alone may have caused a not insignificant number of readers, in particular those teaching English, to pull at their hair shouting “doom! Never make me read this again!” Also, hands up if you studied this for your GCSEs? I am imagining lots of hands. AQA, I would love a statistic on just how many children have studied this novel and taken an exam in it.

More than ten years ago, I was taught this novel by the most knowledgeable and charismatic teacher you can imagine. At that time, this was undeniably the best book I had ever read, although I think I only know that in hindsight (my taste was all over the place – my 15 year old self would probably have said Orwell’s “Keep the Aspidistra Flying”, a book I have since discovered is one of his most derided works).

The themes in the novel are epic: life, death, hope, dreams, power, powerlessness – I could go on, but I am trusting that 90% of readers can fill in the blanks themselves.

What really struck me about this novel was that when I came to prepare to teach it 11 years later, it still got me in a big way. Sitting on my sofa one sad, exhausted Friday, I ploughed through the entire thing, only to find myself weeping uncontrollably by the final pages. Why did this happen?

There is a fabulous essay, which I made my year 11 read, by Thomas Scarseth called “A Teachable Good Book”, in which he discourses at length on the nature of tragedy and whether this book is one. Unarguably, catharsis is a key component of tragedy, and if my sniveling, hysterical reaction is anything to go by, this book is one.

It is a tragedy of another kind, however: of both the ordinary man, and the unlucky man. In our comparatively caring society, the modern reader pities Lennie and sees him as this force for general good, albeit one liable to make mistakes. Through Steinbeck’s narration, we come to empathise with him, even as he commits the most horrific acts. We are made to understand why, and made to feel intense pity. The narrative comes crashing towards its tragically inevitable climax and we find ourselves wondering “how could this happen? How could it have been changed?”, much like, I would argue, in the closing scenes of many a Shakespeare play.

Another reason I wanted to blog about this book was because I am an examiner for an GCSE Literature paper, and as part of my duties I read the alternative modern texts for this exam. Only a few struck me as enjoyable, the others I struggled through, and none bore the hallmark of great literature in the way that Steinbeck’s novel does.

If we want students to become readers of literature, they surely must study the greatest literature; not just books which are conduits for discussing a writer’s techniques. We wonder why this book is so omnipresent on the English curriculum, but have we really looked at the alternatives? I would rather teach a truly great novel, even if it means repetition for me.

Finally, this novel opens the most gifted students up to the greatness of Steinbeck. Many of my year 11s also read The Grapes of Wrath; one even read East of Eden. It also primes them for a wider and more advanced study of American Literature at A-level, containing, as it does, the most crucial themes and some of the most pertinent contextual facts of that nation.

All in all: yes, we teach it to death; no, there are no better alternatives currently; but yes, this is undeniably a towering work of fiction.