I attended a seminar recently when one speaker boldly stated that good examination results are the by-product of a good education rather than being the main purpose of it. No-one disagreed. Yet almost everything happening in the UK education system at the moment would seem to point in the opposite direction.
In January, the media had a field day with the latest version of the so-called “league tables” – we scored a resounding 0 per cent at GCSE even though last summer 98 per cent of all our entries were graded A* or A. Alas, we had chosen the more challenging IGCSE courses in some key subjects.
Meanwhile, although the government has decided that a two-year linear course with fewer examinations and more time to study and develop and explore is a better idea for the 6th form, Cambridge and some other universities are suggesting to schools that they should disrupt all this by entering all students for the new free-standing AS examinations in year 12, albeit that they contribute nothing to the final A level grade.
You may have gathered that I am definitely of the “there is far more to education than examinations persuasion”. Indeed, I regard them as rather like a driving test, something to be passed by performing certain tasks to order, but just a tiny fraction of the greater knowledge, understanding and enthusiasm which one has about a subject.
It is perhaps ironic, therefore, that I now unexpectedly find myself up to my ears in examination syllabuses, past papers and mark schemes. Just as I was preparing to hang up my teaching gear forever, having decided to retire (finally) this summer, I have had to step into the breach.
Cover teachers in classics are not to be had, so I am back in the classroom at short notice (while still being the head) guiding three different year 11 classes through the final preparations for their GCSEs, not to mention the younger pupils and the AS group.
In some ways, it is a pleasure to come full circle and to return to the copious teaching on which I embarked more than 40 years ago. But teaching solidly for a nine-period day is rather a challenge, as I already had my own few classes (none of them taking examinations). Thank goodness study leave starts in May!
More seriously, this has forcibly reminded me just how important it is to understand exactly what the examiner is looking for and how to gain the most marks for each question. In these modern days of mechanised examining, individual words matter and however sophisticated one’s arguments, if they don’t hit all the prescribed trigger points then they will count for nothing.
I have to keep my desire to wax lyrical about the more interesting and abstruse aspects of Virgil or the Panatheniac Festival under control – a brief diversion is fine, but the focus has to be on the examination. So much for my beliefs! But our pupils need passports and at the moment that means good examination grades. This August I shall be studying our school’s examination results even more closely than usual and with some personal trepidation.
By now some readers may be questioning my sanity. However, the most important part of every school is the pupils and it is not right to let them down. As a head, my motto has always been “people before paper”, which is why my other daunting task over the next few months is to sort out and probably clear out all the piles of paper from my office.
For me it is the end of a huge part of my life, but also the start of something new and completely different – no, I won’t be offering my services for cover at any schools or setting up a consultancy. Time for some uninterrupted fun and relaxation instead. Now, I must finish preparing my lessons for tomorrow...
Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.