How To Make Your Child Succeed At GCSE

10 June 2009
The Western Daily Press

So just what is the key to success at GCSE? As a teacher in various state schools for the past two decades, I still chew over the issue virtually every day! Just recently, I was talking late into the night at a Year 11 Parents’ evening. The parents of these sixteen-year-olds were desperate to know how their children could improve their English scores — the subject I teach at mixed comprehensive in the outskirts of London. In particular, one parent, Mrs Smith, was pulling her hair out because her sixteen-year-old son, Josh, is clearly a clever boy but is absolutely bombing in his exams, scoring the lowest grades. In his Key Stage 3 English test, he only managed a Level 3 and in his mock English GCSE he got an ‘F’ grade. I replied that I thought he had a ‘special educational need’ (SEN); I felt he had ‘dysgraphia’ — the inability to express himself while writing by hand. She was initially very reluctant to have him assessed for this, worrying that being labelled as SEN would make things worse for him, but when I explained how such an assessment could help him, she agreed to have him tested. A specialist from the Local Authority assessed him as having mild dyspraxia (hand-eye issues) and ‘dsygraphia’. The assessment meant Josh was given a clear plan of action for improvement and received a laptop to use in his lessons and exams. Since then, his grades in class have leapt from F and G grades to D and C grades; the transformation is remarkable. He is now on course to achieve C grades in most of his GCSEs.

What was incredible is that Josh’s ‘learning difficulties’ were not picked up much sooner. Really by the time he was eight, it should have been clear to his teachers that he had some difficulties with his handwriting which were severely hampering his progress. Instead he had been labelled as ‘slow’ and ‘unintelligent’, and, as a result, frustrated by his lack of progress, he had become a big behavioural problem; ripping up his books, getting into fights and backchatting his teachers. No one had thought to give him a thorough assessment for SEN. I have come across children who have had had far milder learning difficulties who have been diagnosed SEN; but, by and large, these have been the children of pushy parents anxious to get the maximum resources for their child. These were parents who were ‘keyed in’ to the system, who knew that to have your child labelled as ‘SEN’ is actually not harmful but extremely useful because it means targeted help.

However, parents like Josh’s mum — from more deprived backgrounds — don’t know how to support their children fully. She hadn’t been pushy at his primary school and had not demanded that they gave Josh a clear plan of action for improvement. Instead, he had drifted from year to year feeling more and more demoralised.

Josh’s case is very important because it illustrates two vital factors in the success of a child at school; the importance of early assessment and parental input. Josh is one of the lucky ones; he is naturally bright and so with a laptop he is able to pass most exams. However, many children who come from deprived backgrounds enter primary school far more inarticulate than Josh; at five years old they can barely speak more than a few sentences. Studies have shown that children whose parents are living on benefits are not exposed to the language that the children of affluent parents are. A fascinating study in the US a few years ago showed that on average, when in the company of their parent, a ‘middle class’ child listens and responds to a thousand more words per hour than a child living with a single parent on welfare; by the age of three it was estimated that a middle class child would have been exposed to 35 million words, while a child on welfare had only listened to 10 million.

Linguistic impoverishment plays a huge factor in the child’s attainment at school. Many schools are simply not equipped to cope with children who cannot communicate coherently; the Key Stage tests at seven do not adequately diagnose what is wrong with them and the curriculum is not designed to give these children the intensive language training they need. However, studies in the US and the UK show when children are given intensive ‘communication’ catch-up programmes very early on in their school career — in reception and Year 1 — the impact has been huge. They have gone on to achieve well as teenagers.

Josh’s problem was not severe because he was articulate; so when he was given the tools to express himself in writing, he was able to shine. However, I have taught many pupils who have had multiple special needs: dyslexia (difficulties with reading and spelling), dyspraxia (perceptual difficulties with hand-eye co-ordination) and various communication disorders. Many of them had not been diagnosed as SEN or, if they were, the programme of action they were on did not help them. What most of them needed was intensive communication training in their primary schools. Since that had not happened, the children had entered the secondary school where I taught unable to cope with the curriculum; unable to discuss things in a sustained fashion or understand what was going on. With little or no support at home and teachers’ hands tied by a restrictive National Curriculum which doesn’t allow enough time to give extra ‘communication’ lessons, they all failed to gain the five A*-C grades at GCSE that the government expects all pupils to achieve.

Ultimately, this mess isn’t teachers’ or parents’ fault; it is actually this incompetent government’s. Study after study has shown there needs to be a radical overhaul of our assessment regime and our curriculum. The system for assessing pupils, which the Labour party has presided over, is laughably out of date; the Key Stage tests do not identify the ’learning difficulties’ that many pupils have. Instead, the testing regime obliges teachers to ram a boring curriculum down pupils’ throats — which they hate.

Is it any wonder that fewer than half the pupils in the South West of England attain 5 good GCSEs? Instead of threatening to close schools with poor results and lock up parents of truanting pupils, the government needs to help teachers identify under-achievers at much earlier age and give teachers the freedom and time to help them properly.

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