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Corona Diaries: exam assessments – pity the poor teachers

June 11, 2020
The writer at fifteen, contemplating O level exams

We must spare a thought for our teachers, as they get to grips with assessing their students for grades in lieu of the annual GCSE and A Level exams.

Not only are they accused of potential unconscious bias against black and Asian kids, but they face the unenvious task of having to justify in detail each grade they award for fear of sparking off a blizzard of complaints from students and parents. And from the Daily Mail, of course.

I learned how difficult this is when I had to rate the performance of a bunch of smart high-school kids in Bahrain who were competing for places on a state-funded university scholarship scheme. Those who made the cut could take their choice from some of the best universities in the world. I helped to design the programme, and we took special care with the rating criteria.

But it was still a tough and often subjective exercise, made all the more difficult given the stakes for these sixty kids. Fortunately the ratings were only recommendations, and no doubt other considerations were taken into account when the government made its selections.

There’s another factor that I hope the teachers will take into account, though I’m not sure how they will do so. Again, my life experience informs me.

I was bright enough at thirteen to win a scholarship to the private school where I spent the next four years. But thereafter I winged it. There were too many interesting extracurricular activities that distracted me. I did OK in my exams, but only because I had an excellent short-term memory that enable me to get way with last-minute revision, sometimes all night before the exam. If I’d been assessed on my performance in normal class and project work, I would have been in deep shit.

But I did enough to get to university, which was not as easy in those days as it is today, and the rest is history. Well, my unspectacular history anyway. Suffice it to say that if I’d screwed up those exams, my life would have been very different. Not worse perhaps, because there’s always the chance of redemption in adult life. But just different.

So I hope that teachers are able to find a way to accommodate the hares as well as the tortoises, because if I had been in the same position as many kids today, I might have been bitterly regretting all the acting, cricket and other less mentionable stuff I did in the run-up to my exams.

While it’s true that there’s more course work these days than there was in the Sixties, if exams are not still critical determinants of grades, you wonder why students still get nervous about them. And, as we all know, they are.

I hope the whole process of awarding grades goes smoothly, but I fear that whatever measures are in place to ensure fairness, this is going to be one of the issues of the summer. And naturally, the media will happily gorge on it.

So while our attention has mainly been focused on children whose education has been affected by lockdown, let’s not ignore the tsunami of recrimination and complaints that might well roll over our teachers as they struggle to do the right thing.

They need our support and sympathy as well.

From → Education, Politics, Social, UK

  1. deborah a moggio permalink

    oh, my.
    I would not have been happy going in to teach in a classroom where that might be the face greeting me.
    A word of praise for teachers of yore, for having survived us.

    Now, of course, everything is different, from the pressures mentioned above to the fact that from the get-go the teachers can not even count on the support of the parents.

    • Indeed. My teachers were fairly eccentric, but dedicated to the job. And yes, especially in private schools, where parents expect bang for their buck.

  2. I taught for several years in British state schools. No one ever mentions a thing which should be obvious – personal liking or disliking of a student. I worked in one state school where a male teacher conducted a vendetta against one adolescent male student.
    In all classwork, the student was given undeservedly low grades, excluded from participation in activities and so on. Such a teacher will always “justify” their reactions.
    At the same school, a pupil was always awarded low marks because his handwriting was very bad – described as though a spider had dipped its feet in ink and crawled on the page.
    The boy couldn’t see. His problem had never been identified. I sent him to the school nurse and she got him glasses. The boy said to me, “Oh thank you miss, it’s as though a cloud has been taken away. He did very well later.
    Poor school, not looking for reasons and not helping with problems, but just blaming.

    • Thanks Rachel. And what of kids on the autistic scale who were written off as thick, disruptive and disturbed, and whose lives were blighted thereafter? And yes, as the father of a dyslexic child, I get what you’re saying, though in her case her problem was diagnosed and her school helped her overcome her “disadvantage”. She went to University and ended up with a 2:1. In another school, perhaps it wouldn’t have turned out that way, though as parents we would have made damned sure she had every chance of success.

      So teachers aren’t perfect either, though the examples you quote are also evidence of a bad system.

  3. deborah a moggio permalink

    There are many more subtle ways a teacher can destroy a child. Assumptions about what class of student is capable of doing maths/sciences, what group is “naturally lazy” when homework seldom done on time or handed in at all.
    I could go on and on, but I’m sure Rachel could do a better job than I of listing hidden biases.
    Rachel, your school sounds a horrible place to be a child, OR a conscientious teacher. Thank you for looking beyond, not just seeing the obvious, but looking beyond for reasons and solutions.
    E.G. does the “lazy” student have a place to do homework? A place to sleep? Disruptive home? Food?

    ah yes. But the schools, at least in this country are meant to provide everything for each student without the training or means to do most anything, and with all that added, little time to teach.

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