Saturday, 6 September 2014

Bribery by another name

This article was originally written for the TES some time ago, but it never saw print. I think it's probably okay to put it online now.

Have you ever seen one of those cop shows where someone tried to bribe a detective without mentioning the bribe by saying something like; ‘How about we talk about this over free lunch?’ Or, ‘is that a lump of cash in your pocket or…?’ And the whole thing is so awkward and awful that you just want to escape the room you are in and throw the DVD/TV/Talking Box out of the window and watch cars run over it until it all goes away.
Over the past week I have been walking around with a reasonably-sized yellow folder in which is contained all of the year eleven coursework that is to be sent off (probably to Cambridge) to be moderated because apparently if you put an extra lowercase letter in front of a qualification then you can apply some utterly stupid ideas to them, such as telling the teachers which bits are going to be moderated before the students have even written them. I assume that their moderation process is also run by mice. Maybe stoats. This folder has traveled, backpack wrapped and back-muscle snapped from school to train to home to room to train to school ad infinitum over the past week because we, as a department, pride ourselves on our exceptional levels of paranoia and accountability learned the hard way- through prior ineptitude. I, having been nominated as department gremlin for this particular task have turned my weary eye again and again over low-band, high-band and should-have-been-banned idioms and grammar errors until I nearly stripped naked, painted myself with war paint and danced around a massive coursework bonfire chanting I G C S E I G C S E until, thankfully for everyone involved, I would have been taken away. Unfortunately, It is pretty difficult to find war paint of any quality these days so I just moderated them myself and neatly organised everything ready to be sent away before I celebrated with a couple of glasses of single malt before rocking back and forth in a darkened room, crying, and listening to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road on repeat.
It appears that what I have written is the introduction to the wrong article followed by me lamenting over how hard my life has been for the past week (really hard.) But, in all honesty, I just had two paid weeks off so one grimy week isn’t unforgiveable. What is unforgiveable is an event on the day that the folder was due. SLT had asked for the grades and had been duly given them by the little Pavlovian dogs that we are. Having looked at the data they came back with a response. I was not, at the time, aware that a response was needed. Their response: Can you take a look at the essays of those on the D side of the C/D borderline and see if there is anything that could be done?
(Awkward pause)
Perhaps I am far more cynical than I ever thought. Perhaps that cynicism has spread way beyond just my concerns for Star Wars VII. Or, perhaps, what the department was being asked to do in the final hours before submission was, without actually using the words, improve the incidence of C grades by hunting down marks that did, and would never, exist.
If you feel physically sick at this point then I would like to assure you that this is natural. It merely proves that you are human.
There is an unspoken acceptance that if a student’s figures are likely to ruin a school’s data then they should be adjusted through any means possible. Now, of course, we weren’t told to change the figures, and no member of any senior leadership anywhere would admit that they ever said anything that would even insinuate this but I believe that I am right in my reaction and that this is not confined to a lone school. The pressure on the C/D borderline encourages foul play, especially in subjects where there is coursework or speaking and listening elements where, for the most part, the marks are taken on trust. What is one mark here and there between friends, especially if it happens to knock a student over the predicted C boundary?
This is appalling, surely, but what can normal teachers do? They are screwed worse than a bottle of vintage Cabernet at the hands of a tired, undertrained and barely functioning Sommelier. They are taught to preserve their integrity and uphold teaching standards but they are also judged on their data and, especially in the case of academies, this is what determines pay rises. I know teachers who could not do more in schools being denied pay progression because the pass rate or C rate of their department is not good enough.
My Head of Department and I held our resolve. I firmly asserted that every mark in the folder was correct and that all had been done and I am right. I stated to my Head of Department that I was ethically opposed to any further re-marks. Hundreds of hours of teaching, revision classes, extra intervention and support went into that year group’s body of work and in one implied instruction it may have well been turned to toilet paper. The constant assertion that, regardless of effort, mitigating factors or expertise, a D is never enough is a dangerous corruption of our profession that damages everything that we should stand for as teachers. It is also prejudiced against students who have worked very hard. There is no parity in provision because there is no equal waiting in the importance of results. I am sure that I am not the only one to have been put in this situation.
There are huge curriculum reforms on the horizon of secondary school teaching and one hopes that this fabricated win/loss scenario will fall slowly into history under one of those boxes in textbooks headed with something like: Can You Believe They Did This? But, realistically, there will always be this line because people just can’t resist. They can’t keep their little minds out of the concept that schools should compete with one another because, in the end, that is all that this comes down to. Why did our leadership want this done? Because they want to look like the best school. Why do they want this most arrogant of appearances? Because by extrusion and association they themselves look really good. This is not education because education is childcentric and not egocentric. It is not about proving what a bloody good chap you are it is about proving what bloody good kids they are and it is accepting that some years it is just not going to happen. You will not climb the podium; you will not get the medal or kiss the Queen’s foot or get a framed portrait of yourself put up in the Vatican because, simply enough, this isn’t about you. Forcing others to hunt through an essay to ‘find’ two extra marks to push your average over doesn’t make you good at your job. Go teach instead.

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