Failure takes many guises. Sometimes it creeps upon you with deadening realisation; other times it collides with stunning force. Always, it leaves a forlorn sense of ‘it could have been so much better’. Hope never realised; promise unfulfilled.
Back to Friday afternoon and the visitor in reception at school was resplendent. Tall, mature, self-possessed and clutching her degree certificate, framed and gleaming. Natalie had never had an easy ride through education. The day of the GCSE results was tumultuous for her – and not in a good way. Her ‘D’ in Geography ripped apart the composure and the tears flowed freely. She was so keen to go on to study the subject at ‘A’ level and she believed this route was now effectively closed. Having taught her for the last two years I knew a ‘C’ grade was…..well, possibly within her reach, but also not a certainty. On a good day?…with a fair wind….?
It took relatively little discussion and before the day was through we assured her that she would have a place on the ‘A’ level course and to go away and celebrate the successes she had achieved. The thinking was that Natalie was so passionate about the subject, so ready to engage with its ideas that, whatever, she would grow and benefit from the two year of study even if the academic demands were going to be beyond her. Year 12 was, as we had anticipated, an undulating, uncertain journey where the concepts or techniques or response catapulted jarringly either side of a pass grade. But then in Year 13 something clicked. It was like the right gear had finally been discovered, selected and engaged. The journey was less kangaroo bucking and an acceleration of confidence proceeded. By summer Natalie emerged with two ‘E’ grades at A level – a jubilant performance from someone who had struggled with health issues and personal doubt throughout the last few years. And enough to secure herself a place on a degree course of her choice at Sunderland University studying Tourism Management – a career ambition she had nurtured since GCSE days.
So there, three years on, stood this former student, so dignified and justifiably proud of her achievements and the framed honours degree certificate. We went through her photos of parents with barely-concealed pride flanking her at her degree ceremony a few days previously and the celebratory cake her proud sisters had made for her. This glowing success story was down to a triumph of her determination, resoluteness, never-giving-in capacity and sheer spirit.
For our part, Natalie, we were a failure. We didn’t secure for you that ‘C’ grade at GCSE by which all reputations stand or fall – individual, departmental, institutional. We didn’t get you that ‘D’ target grade at ‘A’ level (‘E’ grades are never offered as Target Grades in Year 13 by ALPs or FFT – rather like cancer or pregnancy in the 1960s – aware of their existence but not acknowledged in polite company) – so our residual for you was ‘negative’. Job not done. And we didn’t get you to a ‘Good University’ as approved of by the government for purposes of – who knows? Failed. Failed. Failed.
And yet that isn’t the failure that stains; and from which a malodorous stench emanates down the next few years. For at the weekend I completed the DfEs Key Stage 4 reform consultation survey. And this failure is so much greater. The proposal for Ebaccs, for ‘rigorous’ testing regimes, for high demanding pass benchmarks extracted from non-tiered three-hour exams, for ‘Statements of Achievement’ for those who cannot be drilled into pulling themselves together to perform in fact-grinding tests – this is the real failure. It is a failure of imagination, of understanding how young people develop, it is a failure of humanity and capacity.
What went before hadn’t covered the examination process in glory. The traducing and effective trashing of all GCSE that didn’t make the grade of a ‘C’ was never an intention of the GCSE system when developed in the 1980s. That was to be a non-judgemental hierarchy of criteria-based grades that would describe the performance of 80% of the school population by age 16. But an unseemly transition of language re-positioned the C grade from being the ‘mode’ grade achievement of the early 1990’s (it had been a ‘D’ when GCSEs were first introduced), transmuted it to the ‘average’, that plumped up into the ‘expected’ and was inflated into the more recent ‘essential for a ‘Good Job” such that Gs to Ds became the currency of failure – both of the schools that allowed them to happen, and the students who, more often than not, didn’t collect the paper certificates on which they were written. So we write off the criteria of achievement of 40, 50, sometimes 60% of the exam grades many students perform to in order to have a punchy ‘floor target’ with which to castigate schools and those who operate within.
Then there is what is proposed. Early on it was suggested that ‘O’ levels and ‘CSEs’ would make a return to justified howls of repulsion. A sorting of students into thinkers and hewers, some suggested. But there was one glimmer of virtue of that historic system: the overlapping of certification such that a top grade at CSE (grade 1) held the equivalence of a ‘pass’ grade at ‘O’ level (of which there were 9 levels for some exam boards, with ‘pass’ being 1-6. I cling to my Maths ‘O’ level at a 6 with tenacious fingers). It meant that students, whether entered for CSEs or O levels could aspire to at least a partial parity of convergence.
But not with the Ebacc proposals. The belligerent assumptions of an examination with a pass at the level of a toughened up current C – and a Statement of Achievement for those who don’t get there should be met with the conctempt with which the assumption holds 40% of sixteen year olds. Yes, you can argue that raising the floor target will motivate students and their teachers to work harder and so produce the competitive workfare the country will require (as they do), but it maintains no understanding of how students develop, the pace at which that takes place, and the fact that many students are not finished products even upon leaving at 18; that their best days of learning may still be ahead of them. As long as they haven’t been traduced, mangled and deflated by the system before they can ever develop the self-confidence to believe in their own potential. That necessary raising of the vision, tensing of the muscle and step-taking into the possible – the steps that Natalie took, that could so easily be wiped out with the labelling: ‘I’m a Statementer… further education isn’t for the likes of me. As for a degree?……you’re having a laugh’.
The Ebaccs won’t inspire and be subtle enough for those, like you, Natalie, who needed time for your educational path to assert itself. In all likelihood a younger you – ending Year 11 in 2017 – will be provided with your ‘Statement of Achievement’ and patted on your way to…. well, a very different future. This is the real failure. The failure of something that could have been so much better. Hope never realised. Promise unfulfilled.
I’m just relieved, Natalie, you got through the system when it was still benign to those as resplendently successful as you have become. When I asked Natalie for permission to recount her story, her response was characteristic and unconditional. She knows she has grabbed at success with both hands by making the most of the opportunities that have come her way and refusing to be labelled by the earlier grades she achieved. It is incumbent upon us within the profession to make the case for those opportunities to continue to be available for all young people irrespective of when they eventually flourish.