One of Michael Gove’s favourite headteachers comdemns the unfairness of the GCSE exam board
As a headteacher, I welcome the move towards increased rigour in examinations and as president of the Association of School and College Leaders have advised government officials as to how this can be achieved. However what I cannot tolerate, together with hundreds of my colleagues, is unfairness and this is what we experienced last Thursday from the AQA exam board
We had students crying on results day as they had failed to be awarded the grades my staff had advised them they were on target to achieve. I have colleagues in schools in more affluent areas where their students failed to achieve the higher grades predicted. This will mean they cannot study A-level English but will be able to access university for other subjects; however for my students this will mean a barrier to university.
Woodside High is an 11-16 secondary school. It was previously considered to be a failing school as Ofsted had placed it in special measures and the exam results were dreadful. I was appointed as head in January 2006. Since then we have raised student attainment and achievement by recruiting and developing excellent teachers and raising aspirations. We run extra classes after school and in the holidays and staff and students give their time without question to ensure that our students, who are from disadvantaged backgrounds, achieve to the best of their ability.
Since 2006, our results have improved year on year and this was recognised by Ofsted who awarded us an outstanding grade in February 2011. For the past two years we have been placed in the DfE’s top 100 most improved schools (22nd in 2010 and 33rd in 2011). David Cameron acknowledged this in a speech last summer where he talked about two schools which were succeeding in deprived areas, of which we were one.
But last week all our pupils’ hard work was undermined by a blatant unfairness which came from moving the goalposts in the middle of a school year. Students taking a GCSE in English language with the AQA board in 2012 took three units, a written exam, a speaking and listening test and controlled assessments. The latter two were graded in school and moderated externally. The written exam taken under exam conditions was sent off and marked by the AQA exam board. They were able to sit the written exam in January or June. If the students cashed in their GCSE in January – ie, submitted their internally graded marks – then they required 25 on the speaking and listening, 43 on the controlled assessment and 43 on the written paper to achieve a C grade. If they waited till June, they required 28 and 46 for the internally assessed grades but the exam – taken in January – now required 53 marks for a C grade. So by submitting the school-assessed marks in January they achieved a whole grade higher than that awarded in June.
In a school such as mine where almost 80% of the students have English as an additional language we submit our speaking and listening grades in June. This gives our students an extra two terms to work and improve their spoken English so that they can achieve the best grade possible. This delay meant they had to gain 10 extra marks on the exam and six extra marks on the grades the school assessed; so an extra 16 marks to achieve a C grade. This is a difference of one whole grade across the board.
This boundary change after they had taken the exam meant that 22 of my students achieved D instead of C grades and now cannot get on to the college courses they had chosen. We will have to rely on a range of colleges who do not know my students understanding this anomaly before my students will be given places on their courses.
In my 14 years as a head I have never come across such an arbitrary decision which has had such a damaging effect on the life chances of young people particularly those from a deprived background. This makes a mockery of the supposed rhetoric around social mobility. I know that hundreds of my colleagues agree with this.
Clearly the people making the decision did not understand their own system and hence the inherent unfairness of their action.
Joan McVittie is head of Woodside High School in Haringey, north London