Are teachers doing the best for the best pupils?

14 June 2013
The Daily Telegraph
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The biggest thing holding back bright pupils is the limiting structure of GCSEs, says a comprehensive teacher

Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, depressed me no end when I heard him on the radio yesterday morning. I was getting ready to teach my mixed ability classes in the large comprehensive where I work and felt that he was specifically criticising teachers like me – it felt very personal.

According to Wilshaw, state school teachers are not stretching the most able students; proof of this is that they are not attaining the top GCSE grades that the statistics say they should. New research conducted by Ofsted has shown that many students who have attained top level fives in primary school are falling well short of the top grades at GCSE.

Looking at my classes – I mostly teach the cohort that Wilshaw is talking about, 11-16 year-olds – I can see that I could well be guilty. A number of my most able students are predicted top A grades based on their achievements in SATs at primary schools, but I can see that they will really struggle to get As and A*s at GCSE English under my tutelage – grades that they should be getting.

Who or what is to blame? Is it me? Am I just not good enough as a teacher? This is a question I do torture myself with from time to time. I have been teaching for 20 years and have a track record of getting good results. Last year, nearly half my GCSE English class of mixed ability students attained A grades – no one got below a C grade. With most, I had demonstrably added value to the students in that many of them got above what they would be expected to get based on their prior attainment.

And yet some able students didn’t do well. I think in particular of J, a clever boy with good SATs results who really struggled to work quickly in exams. He was great at reading poems out aloud and explaining them to the class, but he didn’t see the point in writing pages of literary analysis; he had other things on his mind, such as playing rugby.

It is cases like J that come back to haunt you; he should have got an A grade but only scraped B. As a teacher, you feel you are to blame; I know a great many teachers who beat themselves up about students who fail to get the expected grades. Results day in August has become a terrifying experience for me. I always worry that my students won’t have got their predicted grades and I always blame myself if they haven’t.

And yet, I know it’s a bit of nonsense to say that “I” got those students’ results – something many teachers tell themselves both in the good and bad times: I didn’t sit their exams for him, I wasn’t at home supervising their homework or revision, I wasn’t teaching all the other lessons they were part of. And we haven’t even begun to talk about the parents. It goes without saying that if you grow up in a household where there are books on the shelves and newspapers on the table, then you’re much more likely to get good results.

Nevertheless, as this week’s Ofsted report shows, many intelligent students, even coming from supportive homes, are failing to get the top grades. There are a few things to be said about this. I have found the Key Stage 2 SATs results to be quite unreliable. I regularly look at the list of students who got top levels in primary school and scratch my head as to how they did it. When they are tested at the beginning of Year 7 in secondary school, they regularly score much lower than they did a few months before in their primary SATs.

Why is this? Many primary schools prep children extremely hard for the SATs; sometimes their whole future hinges upon SATs results. This means that many children are brilliant at answering the narrow rubric of questions that come up in the SATs but struggle to apply their knowledge in other contexts. They have been drilled to death. The real worry is: are the SATs either valid or reliable as tests? By valid, I mean this quite technically; are they genuine tests of intellectual achievement or do they lend themselves to mechanical learning? I fear the latter. And are they reliably marked?

The Key Stage 3 tests (taken by all 14-year-olds from 1992-2008) had to be abolished because they were so catastrophically marked. Ironically though, their axing was the most significant policy of the last decade, because it has meant that teachers are actually freer to teach what they feel is appropriate rather than drilling students for the insane SATs tests. Science teachers have more time to get pupils doing experiments in the laboratory, maths teachers can do extended investigations, and English teachers can encourage reading around the subject and add things such as drama. All our time isn’t sucked up by prepping for a high-stakes, do-or-die test.

But are mixed ability classes the root of all evil, as the headlines suggest this week? In my school, we continue to teach in mixed ability groups in English, but in other subjects such as maths pupils are put into sets. Like me, most teachers are pragmatists when it comes to setting; if a particular approach isn’t working, they’ll see if another will work. In English, the whole department feels that students of differing abilities benefit from interacting with each other; clever students benefit from sitting next to less able ones if they’re given tasks such as coaching a student in a particular concept.

That said, if I’m really honest, at Key Stage 4 (14-16 years) there are problems with stretching the most able students, but this isn’t because they are in mixed ability groups, it is because the GCSE course itself is so limiting. Like many schools, we currently teach John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men for English literature. Like lots of teachers, I would love to get my students reading more widely around this text; they could read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath to compare with the much shorter text. However, if we did do this, they would flunk the exam, which rigidly expects the students to cover a number of fairly mundane points.

Michael Gove blames the GCSEs and has promised more “rigorous” exams. I’m not sure more terminal exams and cutting out coursework is the answer, though. There is very strong evidence that testing students exclusively by exams is a very poor way of judging achievements and fostering the skills pupils need later on in life. I would very strongly urge you to read the Assessment Reform Group’s research paper ( because many of its findings endorse what I’ve seen during my two decades in the classroom. If you have a system that is entirely focused upon exams, you inevitably get teachers teaching to the test. This is particularly the case when a teacher’s pay and a school’s future hinges upon exam results.

As significant educational thinkers have pointed out, we need to revolutionise schools by setting up courses that encourage active learning, develop creative thinking and problem-solving, as well as the more traditional academic skills. Groups like the Headteachers’ Roundtable – impassioned headteachers from all sorts of schools, including grammar schools – and Bacc for the Future are beginning to do this; they are proposing an assessment system much more like the International Baccalaureate, which contains exams but also aims to assess the whole child through coursework and teacher assessment. However, the Government and Ofsted are not listening to teachers or giving them any power to take the destiny of students into their hands. Instead they appear intent upon blaming us for the failures in the system. No wonder so many teachers like me are feeling demoralised.


  1. Hi Francis,

    As G and T manager at my school, the OFSTED report made for depressing reading. I was glad to read Wilby’s piece in the Guardian ( which put it in perspective. The selective schools are not doing well, either. Supports your point about SATs. I have also been re-reading Onora O’Neill’s Reith lecture about accountability in the public sector – – which is relevant to your point about Of Mice and Men and Grapes of Wrath. All the best, Alison.

    from Alison Murphy
  2. Thanks Alison, I’ll look at these links and think some more about the issue!

    from francisgilbert
  3. Hi Francis – I read your post with great interest as I am a year 6 teacher and I wholeheartedly agree with your comments about the children who allegedly achieve level 5 in SATs at the end of KS2.
    I work in a school that is considered to require improvement. I believe this is because we do not churn out enough level 4 and above in English and maths. I can honestly say that the children I teach know and understand far more in all areas of the curriculum than the ‘narrow
    rubric of questions’ that cone up in year 6 SATs.
    When I send my pupils up to year 7, I am confident that the level awarded for English and maths is based on what I think the children know and understand. I work closely with the high schools and I do not teach to the test but I know the children I have taught do very well in GCSEs because I ask the High Schools to give me that information.
    It’s a shame that high Schools and Primaries can’t work more closely together to lobby the government on this issue. And it’s a shame that more primary school heads and local authorities stop jumping through these ridiculous hoops. I have resigned my post as from Christmas because of these ridiculous remits from Gove and Ofsted but will continue to lobby and harass from without. My colleagues are hard pressed to achieve ridiculous results (level 6 now!) and, as this is linked to pay, they have to produce the results.


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