A final word before retirement

Written by: Marion Gibbs | Published:

After more than 11 years writing the Independent Thinking column for SecEd, headteacher Marion Gibbs retires this summer. In her final article, she focuses on the obsessions of politicians and what real education is

I wrote my first column for SecEd in 2004 and this is to be my last. As I embark upon retirement this summer, I am leaving behind most of my “old life”. I am really grateful to editor Pete Henshaw and the team at SecEd for giving me the opportunity for the past decade to express my views about education and the folly of bureaucrats and politicians, and to highlight the many excellent things that go on in our schools.

It was in many ways a different world when I began my teaching career in a grammar school in the Midlands in 1974, but some themes have remained constant throughout my teaching career: notably, obsessions by government with changes to school structures and to school examinations.

Not long after I started work, the plans were made for the county to go comprehensive and the grammar school became a sixth form college and the secondary modern next door (two adjoining schools made the practicalities of a neighbourhood comprehensive rather challenging) became an 11 to 16 comprehensive.

By the time this happened I had moved to Sussex for family reasons and held a number of temporary posts, first in a middle school and then in a comprehensive, where most of the year groups were actually the old secondary modern working its way out. There I had my first CSE teaching experiences.

To add to this collection, I have taught in two prisons and in a variety of independent schools, I have been an Open University lecturer, a chief examiner and an HMI. However, I have never been the idol of the media, visited 10 Downing Street, or met a prime minister – SecEd has been my only platform!

As I said, education structures have preoccupied politicians: the grammar and secondary modern system (the technical schools never quite took off) were mostly replaced by state comprehensives, and in some cases middle schools or sixth form colleges. Later came grant-maintained schools, where each school was given some financial autonomy as the government tried to reduce the power of the local authorities, and City Technology Colleges, and then foundation trust schools, academies and free schools. Now it seems that every state school is being moved inexorably to academy status, either because it is outstanding or because it is failing, and large academy chains have replaced the local authorities.

Meanwhile, the examination system has also been reformed over and over again. When I took O levels the grading was 1 to 9, with 1 the highest and 1 to 6 counting as a pass. CSEs were then invented: Mode 1 had exams and Mode 3 was written by the teachers and assessed by coursework.

In 1988, the GCSE was born, to end the two-tier system of CSE and O level, and coursework and positive marking were key elements. Letter grades were now in use with A to C being a good pass; the A* came much later. Modules were introduced to some mathematics and science A levels in the 1980s. AS came along next, but as a separate and completely freestanding examination to act as a contrast or complement to students’ A level subjects.

Curriculum 2000 saw the introduction of the completely modularised AS and A level system, with AS modules being easier but counting for 50 per cent of the final A level and no limit to the number of re-sits. The International Baccalaureate began to become more popular and then the linear pre-U was introduced. The pendulum is now swinging back.

Simultaneously, a myriad of vocational qualifications had sprung up, run by a host of awarding bodies connected with different skills and trades. These were shoe-horned into certificates and qualifications: BTEC, GNVQ, NVQ, Vocational A levels, none entirely successful.

One might ask where is education in all this? What of the students and teachers and the debate about what education is for and what a good education should be? The current government might reply: “We have invented the EBacc.” This is their flagship for a good education.

But, as I have so often argued in SecEd, education is about so much more than examinations – it is about giving young people the knowledge and understanding to be able to learn independently throughout their lives and the confidence, resilience and self-worth to believe that they can succeed and that if they fail at something they can try again or try something else.

It is about showing them that there are adults who are responsible and who will be there for them and help and guide them, and about teaching them how to work with others and to be part of a team, including those from all sorts of different backgrounds (encouraging state-independent school partnerships is one of my passions).

It is about opening young people’s eyes, ears, hearts and minds to the best of the past, whether it be art, music, literature, philosophy, drama or such like, while equipping them with skills for the 21st century.

It is also, very importantly, about encouraging and educating them to think about others, especially those who are less fortunate, and being ready to help and support them, developing the habit of giving generously of oneself (not just money). However, these things are not easily measurable.

Accountability and targets now rule. Exam results are what matter. Ofsted has been invented and parents in many schools are just as “focused” as inspectors. ICT is king and mobile technology dominates young people’s lives. Values are something which has been defined by government diktat to suit current political circumstances. Apologies if I sound bitter – I am not.

I have thoroughly enjoyed almost every moment of my career in education. I have been hugely privileged to work with some extraordinary colleagues and have had the pleasure of teaching or looking after many thousands of young people. I wish them and you well as I start my new life (well, after I have dealt with the exam results in August!).

  • Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.

Photo: James Allen's Girls' School


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