I've just survived my first short-notice Ofsted visit and as a result have been reflecting on changes in educational practice. Every year when results seemingly improve, around September the news is full of claims exams are getting easier but as a teacher I'm not so sure this is true.
It's shockingly (for me at least) been over fifteen years since I sat my GCSEs and since then the pressure put on schools to ensure students get that all important English C grade has massively increased. In keeping with often unrealistic expectations, teachers have changed teaching styles to more thoroughly prepare students for their exams.
Back “in the day” teachers would introduce students to concepts and literary/linguistic terminology and then leave them to individual interpretation (no disrespect intended to my English teacher - she was brilliant). I don't remember being given essay plans, spoon-fed textual interpretation or being given detailed lessons on how to approach individual exam questions. I was certainly never told how many minutes to spend on each question or shown patterns in question wording.
Today, however, the enormous pressure teachers are under to deliver results means more students have become reliant on teachers and less able to carry out independent study (I often feel like students want you to dictate essay question answers, learn new concepts for them and when marking books, I frequently find notes copied from the board but work that involves analysing language unaided is incomplete). In response to higher numbers achieving the benchmark C grade, examining boards have made exams more difficult, often introducing additional questions students are expected to answer in the same amount of time.
In addition to reduced planning/writing time, boards like AQA have altered the grade boundaries so it is now more difficult to achieve higher grades, resulting in some odd weighting in mark schemes, for instance a top band used to cover As and A*s but now also includes B grades. What mark constitutes each grade seems to fluctuate and change so unpredictably teachers are no longer able to say a piece of work is definitely a C or B. Many teachers are wary of speaking in grades at all for fear of dashing hopes when boundaries later change. The focus being put on Cs has also devalued the achievement of “lower-ability” students who perform impressively but don't reach the benchmark and in turn, many students seem happy to settle with a C grade, rather than aiming high – to summarise, the C has almost become the new A*.
The recent Ofsted visit began with us all being told to “carry on as normal”, rather than plan “show” lessons of the kind commonly seen in recruitment days (when applying for a teaching position applicants have to plan a lesson for the headteacher and department head to assess based on a topic outlined by the school) that aren't always practical on a daily basis. By day two, we were told Ofsted didn't want “teacher-led” lessons and were keen to see independent learning.
Giving Ofsted what they want puts teachers in a “Catch-22” situation. Some students are very unlikely to ever achieve the required C grade without being spoon-fed – after all, not many of us are interested in or good at everything. Other “D/C borderline” students have the potential to achieve or exceed that sought-after C provided they are willing to put in additional independent work outside of lessons but are so unused to working on their own initiative, they have no idea where to begin.
The answer lies in league tables/Ofsted reports backing off to move away from schools being judged purely on statistics and examining boards ceasing to stuff far too much into the curriculum for the typical two-year time scale schools work to. With breathing space, schools and teachers would have the confidence to implement potentially risky whole new approaches to learning that encourage independent work and in turn students would have more faith in their own ability. Of course, changes would lead to an initial dip in results but once students were used to the kind of learning expected during A'level and university courses, exams would be an honest reflection of individual ability; teenagers would be more resourceful and possess the kind of gumption many employers look for. However, expectations in the job market putting additional pressure on students to “get results” means this change is unlikely to happen any time soon and we're stuck in this awful Catch-22 situation.