Focusing on grades is failing education

Post by: Jennie Richards, Emeritus Teacher Research Lead for SUPER and retired teacher. Please note this is purely a personal reflection and not written as a representative of SUPER.

In my last year in the classroom before retirement, I asked my newly acquired Upper Sixth students what they wanted from their final year of schooling. I went round each student individually and each student dutifully told me they wanted to improve their grade in my subject – until the last one, who thought she was being cheeky when she replied that she wanted to have fun.  Imagine the shock when I replied that she had given the right answer. This obsession  with grades is not just  confined to students worrying about test and exam performance, but virtually every school  I drive past has a banner outside proclaiming its OFSTED grading, and teachers are frequently graded for their teaching too. Perhaps teachers and their leaders have been working in “fun free zones” for too long, and this has led to current recruitment and retention problems. It has certainly led to mental health issues for students.

f for failure logo

Last June I attended the annual SUPER conference and joined a workshop about some research a school was conducting into performance tracking, with the aim of improving the accuracy of their grade predictions.  This is at a time when many universities are calling for post results applications since the current system, based on predicted results, is so notoriously unreliable. Are teachers barking up the wrong tree with frequent data collection, plotting progress against so called ability baselines etc?  Are we just putting untold pressure on students and teachers alike in pursuit of the so called target grades? (One school was recently criticised in the papers for making sixth formers display their individual target grades on their school ID badges). Have teachers forgotten that education is about learning, not performing in tests?

I reflect on discussions I have had with senior teaching staff who talked at GCSE level about “the grade C student”, or the “C/D borderline student”. My response that all students were potential grade A students was usually met with incredulity. However, over a long teaching career I learned that students respond best when they are told they have great potential. Why are teachers limiting students’ horizons so much? No-one has yet managed to find a fool proof way of predicting ability or potential. Students do not improve in a linear fashion – they have break through moments and can be startling in their new found progress and enthusiasm.

Getting students to question what they are told, encouraging a use of  alternative interpretations, using lots of different stimuli, making learning fun in group activities, being mindful of their insecurities and constantly encouraging and having faith in students  seemed to work in my classroom.  I see that OFSTED has just announced a change of inspection emphasis away from using “outcomes data” and towards an “overall quality of education” grading.  I am optimistic things may be changing in the right direction at last, but the cynic in me is wondering how long it will take to change the “tracking grades” culture.


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