The worst timing possible...


Our headteacher diarist despairs as the confirmation of GCSE reform and Michael Gove's comments on the quality of the current qualifications come just as our students enter the exam hall...

Whatever activity you are engaged in, timing is critical. I am thinking of the player who scores a great goal but mistimed his run and is flagged offside, or the pass that most certainly would have led to a try if the receiving player had been a yard further forward – the list goes on.

In our working world we think of the announcements that emanate during the first week of the summer holidays or from somewhere in left field – those about which the first we teachers hear is usually via Radio 4!

Frustrating certainly, suspiciously bad timing possibly, but ultimately we can live with them and work our way around them, which is what we always do. 

Teachers are experts at thinking on their feet and coping with whatever comes along, whether it is the complete reversal of educational policy or a student’s lost lunch money! 

However, the GCSE announcements last week go far, far beyond this because they impact upon our students at the most critical time – during their exams.

Youngsters are less able to see things for what they are sometimes. I remember that at 16 things were very much black or white, right or wrong and very, very important. I was less skilled at thinking things through and deciding what was really critical.

What must today’s 16-year-olds think when the headlines shout out “new look tougher GCSEs revealed”, “warning over separate GCSE systems” and “coursework too easy” as they walk home after a day spent in the exam hall? What do they think when they hear the words of our secretary of state in the House of Commons last week?

“By making GCSEs more demanding, more fulfilling, and more stretching we can give our young people the broad, deep and balanced education which will equip them to win in the global race,” he said.

Some of our nation’s children never even get onto the starting blocks, Mr Gove. Sometimes because they are the offspring of third generation unemployed, or they manage to keep body and soul together in homes where the basics are alcohol, cigarettes and illegal substances, or indeed the prescribed medications which counter the impacts of social deprivation, and where the basics provided by the school are sold on to fund addiction.

We have been there and we know it happens. Some of our kids won’t need to read Dickens – they live it day-in and grinding day-out in an increasingly divided society. No amount of Pupil Premium will counter that.

We can hear the groans of the teachers who have challenged, supported, cajoled, chastised and ultimately educated our youngsters as they read in the national media: “Teenagers will have to study more Dickens, poetry, algebra, genetics and ecology to acheive (sic) the best grades to bring an end to ‘discredited’ qualifications” (Daily Mail).

I can’t wait to read Ian Whitwham’s thoughts in his SecEd column! 

I know for a fact that even Dumbledore himself couldn’t do a better job than some of our nation’s finest in our best schools – not necessarily those deemed to be “outstanding”. I for one will never give up working to improve our educational system either as headteacher in my own school or a Local Leader of Education and Ofsted inspector in others. 

I aim high for all students and believe that all are entitled to the very best – no excuses here, but there does need to be a reality check.

My one wish is that Mr Gove and Sir Michael would work with us in this, instead of making our work so much harder. Let’s work together to make sure that every child from birth is entitled to the best we can give, and that means addressing issues far more fundamental than the structure of GCSEs – and getting the timing right!

  • Diary of a headteacher is written anonymously and in rotation by three practising headteachers from schools across the country.


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