September looms and I’ve already been given an appointment for my Progress Meeting to discuss last year’s results and strategies for this year’s.

On the one hand, I could be forgiven for feeling quite complacent: the English faculty achieved 84% A*-C which is up 16% from last year and an unprecedented success rate for the school. Our English Literature results have done up from an already outstanding 93% to a phenomenal 98%. Media Studies is also at 98% and 66% A*-A (this with 90 students having been entered – almost 3 times as many as previous years). I think I could definitely argue that we’re sitting pretty.

However, we need to have a look at how have these results been achieved:

1. Resits – most of the cohort first took English the previous year. About 60% got at least a C first time round. We then re-entered about 60 students in November 2010 which took our pass rate up to 74%. About 20 students were entered for the third time in June and almost all of them either got a C or improved their grades.

2. Small class sizes – we began Year 11 last year with 15 students each in 4 resit classes. We are very fortunate that the school has prioritised staffing for English which means that in Year 11 we have n+2 teachers. Also, we were able to offer everyone who had passed the opportunity to study both Literature & Media which meant that we were able to concentrate on these small numbers of students without holding back the rest of the year. After the November resit results came in, all the students who had passed English were given the opportunity to either study Literature or ‘drop’ English altogether in order to concentrate on maths, science or other areas where they were struggling. This meant that we were able to reduce class sizes to 6 or 7 key students per class! Every single one of our Magic Students (5 GCSEs plus maths but not English) converted to a C grade.

OK the GCSE results are tremendous, but was this the right thing to have done? It is definitely true that our A*-C success has come at the cost of success at A*-A. On reflection, I think entering Higher Tier students at the end of Year 10 was a mistake. While we did offer the opportunity to resit for these students, too few actually met their A grade targets. Maybe if they’d continued their studies up to the end of Year 11 they might have done better.

The other cost is that for some students, the entirety of Year 11 was spent preparing for the English GCSE. When I asked then in June whether it had been worth it, many of them said no. I asked several the same question on results day and all had changed their minds. Certainly, this kind of teaching was not the reason I got into education, but does the end justify the means? I’m not sure. I recently read in Ian Gilbert’s Essential Motivation for the Classroom that “the worst possible preparation for adulthood is to do well in your exams” and that instead schools should focus on teaching children “how to cope with failure”. He goes on to ask, “are we focussing on short-term external factors simply to make the students and hence the school, and hence the government of the day, look good?” I hope not.

The other factor to consider is next year’s results. The new year 11 have been studying the new modular GCSEs which Mr Gove is so appalled with. We entered all of Year 10 for a modular exam this year and although I haven’t crunched the numbers yet, they haven’t done as well as they should have. Chris Weadon has said in a recent TES article that “entering borderline pupils early for modular GCSEs was like a Shakespearean farce – but less funny”. Certainly the SEN co-ordinator at my school agrees. She said that many of the students that have either readers or scribes found the experience of sitting the poetry exam soul destroying. Should we have done it? Can they have learnt anything positive from this ‘failure’?

The plan is that this year’s Year 11 will sit their English Language GCSE (the important one according to the government) in January 2012 and the final English Literature GCSE in June. I think it’s too late to change their programme of study, but should I? Obviously, I want them to get the very best results they can get and in order to facilitate this we decided to give them the opportunity to resit English Language in June.

Regular readers of my blog will know how highly I value skills based learning and creativity. We study GCSE over three years in oder to give our charges a thorough grounding in all of this in Year 9. There’s is no way my lessons are ever going to be mere stages in the conveyor belt of an exams factory.


What is more important (this is a genuine question not a rhetorical device) a C grade GCSE or a love of English? An external measure of ‘success’ or the belief that failure will help provide an internal recognition of our worth? Answers on a postcard please.

A quote to finish off:

“If you’re not failing every now and again it’s a sure sign you’re not doing anything very innovative”

Woody Allen