The unpredictable school treadmill


The annual cycle of school life rolls ever onwards, but while it can sometimes feel like a treadmill – it is still the unpredictability of our students that makes the job worthwhile, says Marion Gibbs.

Working in a school means that we are often operating on different timescales and cycles to other people. Right now I am spending much of my time in detailed planning for 2013/14. The year 7 admissions round is complete and we are busy working through all the staffing schedules for the next academic year. 

Of course there is still time for staff to announce their retirement, or that they are moving to another job, wish to reduce their hours, or are planning maternity leave – but in theory we are already planning next year’s timetable. 

The school calendar is also being drawn up for the new year – we are negotiating when the major school drama productions will be, which dates concerts will be on, where we will fit in all the parents’ evenings, visiting speakers and such like. 

Meanwhile, we are also concentrating very firmly on the present and on the next few weeks, especially with our students in years 11, 12 and 13. There are very few weeks of teaching left now before the GCSE examinations are underway and the AS modules follow swiftly on their heels. 

This is the time of year when students are more eager than ever before to hand in additional work to their teachers for marking and to practise as many examination-style questions as possible on their own. 

I do realise that not all SecEd readers will have this problem, but it certainly puts additional pressure on staff in schools where students are particularly enthused for the final effort.

Rather than chasing students for late homework, staff are now being pestered by students to have their work marked as quickly as possible and to give as much feedback as they can. All too soon it will be results time and another school year will be starting.

It is not that I am “wishing the time away”, but working in schools does lead to a different timeline. 

Talking to our head girls recently, they could not believe that their time at school was nearly over and that soon they would be passing on their responsibilities to those chosen from the year below. They felt that their schooldays had passed remarkably quickly.

Of course, no matter how many years you have been teaching, if you work in this country you are unlikely to have had more than a couple of years when you were teaching the same syllabus at any level, as we have gone through an almost constant process of curriculum change for the last 40 years or so. 

CSE was invented for those who were not deemed suitable for O level examinations and there was a heady period when lots of groups of teachers created and assessed their own Mode 3 courses with external validation. 

All of that was swept away by GCSE in the 1980s, but meanwhile a whole raft of different vocational tests and certificates were appearing, and often disappearing. GCSE may have been with us since 1988, but coursework has been in and out of fashion and linear examinations were replaced by modular ones, only now to be replaced by linear again. 

AS was invented as a standalone qualification as part of curriculum 2000, but then changed into the equivalent of the first part of an 

A level course. That, too, is now moving into reverse. No time to become complacent (or perhaps even confident) in our secondary schools.

Those not involved in schools might think that we are on some kind of treadmill and that our lives are very predictable, but that is to ignore the fact that we have the privilege of working with young people. 

Are any two young people ever exactly the same? Have you ever taught the same topic to a different class and had an identical response? Could you predict exactly how those fresh-faced new year 7s in September would turn out in future years or what they would end up doing?

The ability of young people to surprise and delight is tremendous, and I believe this far, far outweighs their ability occasionally to irritate or exasperate. 

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


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