Fighting the Last War – Reflections on 2015 GCSE Exam Results

National measures might have remained stable in last week’s GCSE results, but this stability hides significant volatility amongst schools serving lower attaining intakes.  Many schools that have become accustomed to strong outcomes based on intense intervention struggled to get students over the line this year.

As I reflected on these results the line that stuck in my head was that too many schools are fighting the last war.  In too many classrooms, teaching Year 11 involves helping students to pass the previous year’s exam.  In too many revision sessions, students are coached to creep over thresholds based on the previous year’s grade boundaries.  This approach might have worked in the past but it’s ill-suited to the new landscape in which we find ourselves.

This new landscape includes longer exams with tougher questions; questions which require students to have a solid foundational understanding of their subjects.  It’s easy to say, but we need to nurture mathematicians in our schools, rather than spend our time helping students hunt around for the easier marks to scrape a C grade on a GCSE Maths paper.

In this new landscape there’s no place for the props on which so much GCSE ‘success’ was built: early and repeated entry and a strong reliance on vocational equivalences.  Even iGCSE English is no longer the safe bet that it was.  It’s a shame that so many students’ apparent success in English was actually based on meticulous preparation for speaking & listening and controlled assessments, followed by a few easy marks in the final exam to take them over the line.  This had become a trusted method for securing C grades with challenging students, but this year it failed to deliver.

Meanwhile in Maths, a rise in the grade boundary for a C grade at one popular exam board was met with consternation by many teachers who felt aggrieved that they had done their bit to get students over the line, only for the exam board to change the rules at the last minute.  Laura McInerney was right to tweet “a higher grade boundary does not mean it was harder to get a certain grade; that’s not how it works” but the sad reality is that many students had been taught how to score a C grade against last year’s grade boundaries.  The sense of entitlement felt by many teachers that a score which gained a C last year should gain a C this year shows the paucity of assessment awareness in our profession.

The last war was fought by directing a huge proportion of a school’s energy on Year 11.  The best teachers, the best classrooms, the best heads of year were allocated to Year 11.  Schools opened their doors after school, at weekends and in the holidays to deliver intervention for Year 11.  Some schools paid for the whole year group to attend residential boot camps, while others brought in external tutors and swat teams for holiday revision programmes.  One company guarantees to raise every student’s maths grade in a week, or you get your money back.

The law of diminishing returns is now dampening the impact of Year 11 intervention.  These tactics, tips and techniques to get students over the line have become a victim of their own success in the (almost) zero sum game of national exams.  While schools will always pay close attention to the fine tuning that gives students the best chance to do well in exams, we need, at last, to play the long game and invest in high quality teaching in every subject and every year group.

No longer should a forensic knowledge of exam tactics be a prerequisite for school leadership.  In turn, school leaders need to be given time to turn their schools around, rather than feeling pressured to make superficial year-on-year gains based on intensive coaching of borderline students.  The introduction of Progress 8 is an opportunity to re-focus on every student and every grade.

Year 11 intervention is becoming our Trident nuclear defence system – a costly relic of a war that is no longer relevant, and a distraction from the threats and opportunities in the here and now.