Last Friday (24 August) a teacher from south east London, a member of Workers' Liberty, woke up feeling very miserable indeed. She’d been slaving her guts out over a year and a half to make sure that her English class achieved C grades in their GCSE.
This is a longer version of this article than in the printed paper.
Due to Education Secretary Michael Gove that didn’t happen, most of them ostensibly failed (a D no longer guarantees you a place in further education). So, after an obligatory mope, she contacted local union executive member and suggested a demonstration outside the DFE. He contacted a press contact at the TES and they had a time and place. Tuesday 28th August, 1pm. It was covered in the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, the TES and on Radio 5 Live. A grass-roots union-backed activity? Called for by actual workers? Yes, it happened. Here’s some of the background.
GCSE results have dropped significantly for the first time in 24 years. Through what the exam boards claim to be ‘actions to curb grade inflation’: we have seen many students receiving D grades this summer with marks that would have secured them C grades had they sat the exams and submitted their coursework in January.
The worst hit subject is English. Many students who sat the AQA English Foundation paper found that they did not achieve their C grade this summer because, after all of the exams had been marked by examiners, the pass mark for a C was moved up by a total of 16 marks. It transpires, then, that because many students have met the standard necessary for access to the majority of academic further education courses; the standard has been changed. This will limit the options available for these students in further education and, therefore, drastically reduce the number of students who will go on to study in higher education.
More working-class students will be forced to study vocational courses that may limit their choices later on in life. Many will inevitably find themselves needing to enter the job market at an earlier age than they had hoped. This may work out quite well for work minister, Chris Grayling, who (on the same day as our demonstration) unveiled plans for 18-24 year olds to work for free for 30 hours before being able to claim job seekers allowance! The more disappointed school leavers there are, the more free labour many companies will inevitably acquire as the workfare programme becomes the only option available for young people.
Over 950 schools have put in complaints to the qualifications regulator Ofqual (nearly a third of all schools in the country). Ofqual have now bowed to the pressure and will conduct an independent inquiry into this. (But if the independent Inquiry into exam cheating at a certain notorious school in Dulwich is anything to go by, the results will inevitably favour those with the most invested in exams, ie the private companies running the show.)
This year Gove introduced a requirement that schools who fall below a floor target of 40% will be forced to become academies. This years deflated results will see many schools in this situation. This makes the blatant manipulation of results all the more disgusting, as it is another example of a move that benefits private corporations over students and school workers.
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) is challenging the exam boards on grounds of equalities legislation; as the majority of children affected were from working-class and ethnic minority backgrounds.
The teachers + parents
Parents of Golden Hillock School, Birmingham, also protested last Tuesday whilst London teachers presented this letter to Michael Gove:
Dear Mr Gove
Last Thursday, instead of receiving just reward for their achievements, many thousands of GCSE students found that their hopes of that vital ‘A*- C’ Grade in English had been dashed. It is now clear that this was owing to a substantial and unjustifiable shift in grade boundaries between January and June 2012.
Those students, their parents and teachers, as well as many members of the wider public, expect you, as Education Secretary, now to act swiftly to resolve this scandal.
Unfortunately, those same students, parents and staff are only too aware that this unacceptable shifting of the GCSE goalposts fits well with an ideological agenda that seeks to privatise education, undermine local democratic control and restrict the opportunities for our youngsters to progress to further and higher education.
The raising of the ‘floor target’ to 40% A* – C grades, a target that schools must reach to avoid the threat of forced academisation, is undoubtedly your decision. Conveniently for the supporters of school privatisation, this increase now coincides with a shift in grade boundaries that has made it significantly harder for schools to achieve that higher target.
If you are to convince schools, students and voters that you and your Government are not intent on damaging youngsters’ life-chances, nor set on unfairly extending your privatisation plans, then you have an urgent responsibility to insist that this summer’s English grade boundaries be redrawn.
I demand that you call on Ofqual and the exam boards to urgently redraw the grade boundaries for GCSE English to ensure that those students who, in June 2012, achieved the standard which was required to achieve a ‘C’- grade in January 2012 , are now also awarded the same ‘C’ – grade.
With new capability procedures being introduced this September, many teachers could face punitive measures for the drop in exam grades. Schools may decide to balance their books by punishing these teachers by not allowing them to progress up the pay-scale, as they should do for each year in service. Can we trust the businesses that run many free schools and academies to act against the interest of profit here, and actually investigate the effort that the teachers have put in to teaching these students, regardless of the pass mark?
This scandal, on top of allegations of exam-cheating in previous years, has prompted education professionals to re-think their faith in exam boards. Many are asking questions about what a true education looks like, and how we can expect to be able to deliver it in a market-place of competing exam boards that respond to political manipulation. The ballot over workload includes resistance to increasing pressure based on, often arbitrary, targets. Though heads and teachers are united in their anger over Gove’s grade-robbery; beyond this there is a difference in opinion. Many teachers are at breaking point over schools’ heavy reliance on data, and our subsequent culpability over ‘numbers’ not human beings. Meanwhile targets and data are being used by school leaders, particularly in academies to bully and harrass these same teachers.
Experienced, and therefore older, teachers are being bullied out of their jobs to make way for cheap teach-first students, fresh from University. Where we want to see the best for our students and are angry that they have been shut out of further education and our hard work undermined; many heads will be angry over this summer’s bad performance of their school because it affects their standing in the league tables. Their’s is not necessarily a logic of inclusion and equality, it fits into the logic of competition.
Whilst the exam system has been embarrassed and invalidated by this fiasco, teachers should focus their energy on asking the big questions about assessment, the measurement of aptitude and the dominant logic of competitive capitalism that is continuing to strangle education.
Even if these grade boundaries are reversed and these many children are awarded their C’s, we should continue to call actions within the NUT, and expose those who are not forthcoming with their support. With the energy of the new LANAC network within the NUT, there is potential for a union that reflects the wishes of the rank-and-file, not just the bureaucrats. Within this forum teachers on the left will need to be asking ourselves what exactly we think could replace this corrupt exam system.