The Truth About Results’ Day

10 June 2009
The Times Educational Supplement
link to original

Many teachers are evasive on results’ day. There was a time when I freely volunteered to hand out results to pupils, assisting with the examination secretary’s job of supplying this vital information as quickly and efficiently as possible. However, bitter experience has made me wary: I found myself in the firing line, facing sobbing students as they saw their disappointing results and then running the gauntlet of irate parents as they demanded to know why their marvellous offspring didn’t get super-duper grades.
Recently, I’ve opted for a more secretive approach, sneaking into school by the back door, usually in the quiet, empty afternoon of results’ day, after all the pupils and parents have vanished in clouds of congratulation and commiseration. With trembling hands, I’ll collect the bundle of results from my pigeonhole and then scan them quickly, checking to see that there haven’t been any major disasters. At my current school, which is a high-achieving comprehensive in outer London, this means looking for grades from “D-G”, while at previous schools, the threshold was lower, scanning for F and G grades. I always check my own results first. Having taught secondary English for sixteen years now, I’ve noticed that my results do follow a familiar pattern. I can nearly always predict my GCSE grades; there are rarely complete surprises, except pleasant ones such as seeing that some weak pupil has scored more highly than you thought they would – and possibly more than they deserved. As is confirmed by the national statistics, increasing numbers of pupils are crossing the vital C grade threshold at GCSE. My A-Level results always contain weird anomalies. Since the introduction of the new A-Levels with Curriculum 2000, where pupils take three ‘modules’ in Year 12 and another three in Year 13, re-taking as many times as they want throughout the course, there’s never been a year when we haven’t queried our results. Sometimes, it’s clear a set of papers has been absurdly over-marked — in which case we keep very quiet! — or, just as often, pupils’ work has been miserably under-marked – in which case, angry letters are fired off to the exam boards and re-marks are demanded.
The Key Stage 3 English results are never predictable. I think most schools now regard them as something of a joke because they are so inconsistently marked. To be honest, I hardly worry about them at all on results’ day. However, the Key Stage 3 results do have a big impact upon my professional life: my department is often judged harshly because of them. The value-added system of measuring department’s achievements means that the Key Stage 1 and 2 results are compared with the Key Stage 3 results. As is the case throughout the country, my secondary school fares poorly in this regard: a group of pupils appear to be making unsatisfactory progress during their first three years in secondary school.
As Head of Department, this amounts to significant pressure on me at the beginning of term. Like most HODs, I have to write a detailed analysis of my results and present my findings to the Headteacher and my line manager – a Deputy Head. Invariably the champagne bottles are not popped open at these sessions: the pats on the back for the good results are brief, while the troubling statistics are chewed over endlessly throughout the year. In these days of performance-related pay, I am aware that my wages are dependent upon meeting specific ‘hard’ targets: improvements throughout the whole department are expected. The whole of my performance as HOD is reviewed. Do I know precisely where and why pupils are under-achieving? Am I supporting my staff properly? Am I writing helpful, regular evaluations of my teachers’ work? Have I surveyed pupils to see what they think helps them learn? Are a variety of learning styles being deployed in the department?
Recently, I’ve felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. I am responsible for the English results of over 1,000 pupils. Sometimes I feel I am accountable for every mis-spelling, every mis-placed comma and full-stop, every book these pupils haven’t read, every essay not marked. Even though the government claims that teachers don’t have to do any ‘administrative tasks’ any more, the reality is that a Head of Department’s time is still consumed with ordering stock, shifting books from room to room, and filing bits of paper. We haven’t been freed up to ‘tackle under-achievement’, we’ve just been ordered to do something about it.
Like many colleagues, I’ve cracked up under the pressure. In January, shortly before my fortieth birthday, having been HOD for five years, I slipped a disk – caused partly by shifting lots of heavy stock around the school – and was in such pain that I re-evaluated my life. I didn’t want to do this anymore: it was a thankless task. I decided to accept an offer of going part-time and give up my duties as Head of Department, pursuing my interest in writing and research during my time off. I didn’t want to be dead or half-dead at fifty.
However, I will be continuing as HOD until a suitable replacement is found. An advert in this very paper during the summer didn’t produce many applicants and no one was appointed to step into my knackered shoes. Apparently, there is a real shortage of middle managers in the core subjects of English, Maths and Science. When I speak to other teachers, I realise why this is: none of them want my job.
Nevertheless, there will be a spring in my step on this results’ day because I know that shortly I won’t be responsible for the impossible. Soon, I will be free to concentrate upon what really matters: my own teaching, my own development – and my life.

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