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Teachers, students, parents, tutors...Hilary Moriarty asks who should take responsibility for achieving top grades

Posted by Hannah Oakman | March 03, 2016 | School life

So, in education, where results are almost as important as they are for football teams, do you ever stop to wonder, whose results are they anyway?

A football team does well, a team does badly, the results speak for themselves – you might think. But footballers now live in a world of minute-by-minute analysis – “The defence was hopeless!” “They never got a good attack going!” – which dissects and repeats, slows down and dissects again every move in the game. A win? Thanks to whom, exactly? And if it was a great move by striker A, then was it instinct or long training? A bit like leadership – born with it, or learned?

And that’s not to mention the dissection of the referee’s performance. Perhaps best not.

And then there’s the manager. And he must be the one to blame or praise because if a team fails, no matter what the power of the opposition or the length of the injured list, if the results are not good, the manager gets fired. Team fails on the pitch, manager’s fault in the dugout. Of course.

In all fairness he can be much praised when the results are good – carried shoulder high, paraded in an open bus, the works. But the link between the man at the top and the failure of the team on the pitch has always seemed to me tenuous. An apparently transformed team after a new manager’s arrival is very often not the same team, newly fired up with the fairy-dust of inspiration, at all. How often does the new manager bring with him his own support team and then set about buying new players and firing others? Expensive, we may say; essential, he may say. At any rate, a different team.

Enough about football, though I do think the analogy is useful. Schools are now results-driven, for obvious reasons. We have accepted the mantra of the new world that education is measurable. The wish that all students should be able to attain a C grade in English and mathematics GCSE has turned into an imperative. Pity the poor English and mathematics teachers. Requirement: five passes including E and M. If students don’t like French – don’t do it. Hopeless at history? Stop. But English and maths? No choice, Sunshine. And these results are not just for you, they are for the whole school, to avoid going into special measures. Your results? No, our results, and our livelihoods at risk. 

The pressure means jealous guarding of time in particular – can you teach the syllabus in this many periods a week? If English and maths are the big guns, do they then get a disproportionate amount of time in the week? And if in English they are teaching long texts when they could do shorter ones – that’s important to other staff who are collectively chasing the five good passes. English lit can shift from Austen to Steinbeck because exam boards value them equally, but Steinbeck is more accessible and short. 

Arguably, a school’s great results in science could then be a consequence of teaching the lowest common denominator text even to the brightest children. Whose result is it anyway? You might well ask.

The pressure may be even greater in independent schools which are increasingly seen by parents as safe places to send children in pursuit of the best possible grades. I did it myself, when my son was good enough in a maintained school not to be of any particular interest to any teacher, and a move to an independent school brought him small classes, lots of teacher attention, longer school days, lots of homework and eventually great grades. Whose results again?

A new dimension opens up when a student is in a good school and doing well with good teachers and everyone expects the best, but someone – pupil himself? Parents? Teacher? – suspects that more is possible. And then suggests a tutor.

I can remember a parents’ evening as head of English when I was asked would a girl get better results (A level, as it happens, nothing trivial) if her parents got her a tutor? I was horrified. I took it personally. How dare she – or they – think that a tutor was necessary! Was I not doing a good job in class? Did I not set demanding essays and mark them thoroughly? How could they possibly want more? And I also thought – but did not say – that if this girl got both a tutor and the A grade I was expecting, I would not be able to claim the credit for her success. Ah, vanity. Looking back, how very dared I?

But the fact that I can remember my utter conviction that I could get this student the grades – yes, I! – if she just learned what I told her and repeated it for the examiner all goes to show: she would be thrilled if she got the top grade and I would believe it was my result.

Increasingly it seems that independent schools are recognising that any help is probably good help, and if the world wants tutors in addition to great teaching from highly qualified teachers in small classes, then this too can be arranged.

Increasingly it seems that independent schools are recognising that any help is probably good help

As I write, we are in the season of many independent schools advertising their very own Easter holiday tutorial courses. A snap reaction to such an ad – beautiful surroundings, all exam boards catered for, expert tuition – is first to think would such a course welcome the school’s own year 11 and sixth-form students? Presumably it would, such holiday courses being open to any happy applicant, and holiday staff usually being different from the term-time ones, with whose wisdom the student is already familiar. 

More likely, perhaps, is that the providers of Easter tutorial opportunities are actually aiming at students from other schools, maintained or independent, whatever: if you think you are not ready for the all-important, life-changing exams you now face, however excellent your current teaching, a fresh view can do no harm, can it? A new look at old material, a different perspective on exams in which a great deal is now known about exactly how to clock up the marks even if you are not a brilliant or natural student – who could resist?

And parents – is an Easter course a last chance to have the right stuff delivered to a child who may spend a week enjoying a series of light-bulb moments – “Ah! Now I get it!” – which he or she completely missed in the hurly burly of the term-time classroom? Or is it a handy and respectable way to cover the fact that you are working all the hours you can, and that to know exactly where your teenager is and what they are up to for the Easter holiday is a blessing? Not so much revision as top-of-the-range child-care.

If the student then does thrillingly well in August – well, here’s a whole new answer to the question – whose results are they in the end?

And in all fairness, how often in a student’s future glittering career will anyone glance at a great CV and ask, quietly: “So tell me – whose results are these anyway?”

Hilary Moriarty taught English for 25 years, is a former head and former national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association

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