13 December 2021

The Monday Briefing: ABC

The Monday Briefing: ABC

“Grades are so much a part of the educational landscape that it’s hard to imagine what schools would be like without them.”

So begins a thought provoking article by David Didau, a Senior Lead Practitioner, educational consultant and prolific author of educational books. I’ve followed his work with interest since his 2015 book ‘What if everything you knew about education was wrong?’ and based a great deal of a previous blog on his superbly composed piece on school leadership in ‘Intelligent Accountability: Creating the Conditions for Teachers to Thrive.’

Didau makes several reasoned points about why grading helps least those who we should be helping most - the students:

“We drill students in test performance in order to ensure they get the best possible results. Inevitably, this means there’s far less time to think about meaning, less time to develop taste and judgement, and less time to explore and digress.”

“If we believe the purpose of education is to make children happier, healthier, safer, more creative, better critical thinkers and so on, it’s not obvious how grading students helps us in these aims.”

“GCSE grades help post-16 providers sort students into academic or vocational pathways. A Level grades are useful for universities, and university classifications are in turn considered useful by employers.”

All of these points emphasise the pressure placed on students to ‘make the grade’ in order to find success, neglecting the many other crucial benefits of education.

For our part, I’m conscious that the College used to be somewhat of an ‘exams factory’. With the old modular system, it was possible for students to come here and attempt, several times if necessary, to raise their marks in units, ‘playing the system’ in essence to accumulate enough credit in order to reach the grade they desired. They weren’t really doing so by finding ways in which they were becoming better learners or better students - they were just becoming more effective at taking exams.

I’ve made a conscious effort since I became Principal to redirect the emphasis of the College to a certain degree - we still absolutely celebrate academic success, but not just of those students who collect a plethora of A and A* grades. We now make it overtly clear that of equal importance to such achievements, are those which require ‘soft skills’: those students who identify and execute a meaningful plan to improve their approach are rewarded; it is made abundantly apparent that those who demonstrate impeccable levels of conduct towards staff and students are also in demand here; finally, a great deal of value is placed on the contribution to the College by our students - the way in which they improve their surroundings and the legacy they will leave behind.

This of course does not get around the problem of the pressures placed on students by exams. The fact of the matter is that envisaging an alternative seems almost impossible.

Abandoning any form of student classification with regard to their work would be a step too far at this point. As Didau states, “assessment is the life-breath of teaching; without it, teachers and students are left to fumble entirely in the dark.”

Therefore, we must accept that grades are here to stay - and in many ways, the certainty of their return following two years of disruption in the pandemic, is welcome for some - but it is in how we distribute and guide our students to understand their value that is the most important factor. 

This begins with the need to teach students to get things in perspective. One does not become a success merely by having a string of grades next to their name. Exceptional academic results should rather be the natural outcome of a focus in education of instilling a lifelong love of learning. This should be coupled with numerous opportunities to build confidence through the development of other skills: leadership; team building; time management; empathy; communication, collaboration and decision making.

They have to know that judgement in life is a reality, however. There will be setbacks, challenges and struggles but these are there to be overcome. And they can be - with resilience, commitment, dedication - and the consistent application of these attributes.

As our students embark on mock examination week, our students need, first and foremost, to see that poor results will not end their educational journey. The December Mock is a staging post - a place where they can assess the journey so far, to rest and reflect, to ‘tool up’ for the road ahead - and so the feedback, rather than the grade, is what really matters. No definitive grades are given out at the end of the first term - but definitive lessons can be learned from them.

The judgement day for these assessments, on the last day of term, provides the ideal means to make the best use of this staging post. They will all experience an emotional ‘dry-run’ by receiving results via a certificate within an envelope on Friday. The highs and lows of student emotion are always intense on our results days, and the replication of what is to come is done proportionately at the College. A time for results, a time for celebration - in the form of a rewards assembly which values not only the A grades in subjects, but the ‘A grade’ improvement, conduct and contribution to College life - and a time for reflection and consultation, where our staff meet with each student, giving them time to discuss the main takeaways of their performance: Was the effort which they displayed good enough on this occasion? Where did they showcase the characteristics of high performance? How can they improve their approach moving forward?

Obviously, such conversations can only take place productively when trust is fully fledged between staff and students. Theo, a student in year 12, who has just been nationally recognised as ‘Highly Commended’ in the Whitbread Memorial Prize, awarded by the Independent Schools Association exemplifies our approach especially well. When asked how the College supported him towards success in the last academic year, he explained that “At EIC a teacher is not just a teacher, but a person to talk to as well. I feel like I get a lot more personal advice alongside my education.” 

As teachers, our role is to welcome them at the staging post, to offer encouragement, and provide professional, reasoned guidance. To analyse and offer direction. Above all, to ensure they are aware that we are with them on every step of the journey towards their own personal fulfilment.

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