I’ve been a teacher at Highgate for longer than I care to admit and in that time I have witnessed thousands of children arrive as fresh faced year 7’s, leaving seven years later as gnarly veterans of Year 13, eager to grasp the mettle of independence that beckons. Of course, most don’t have a clue what they want to do with their lives, and I see it as part of my job to help them navigate to a place where they at least have an inkling.
Over the years I have suggested to a number of pupils that they would make excellent teachers themselves. Their reactions always amuse me; often, they temporarily and unintentionally let their guard down when responding, with “I don’t think so, Sir” being a very common refrain. A frequent observation made by the pupils about a career in teaching is that it must be really boring having to repeat the same things year on year. After politely telling them that I have fun every single day when I’m at school (pupils never believe me when I say this, but it’s true) and that teachers don’t simply re-use the same materials from one year to the next because no two classes are alike, I then invariably concede that there is a degree of repetition around the school calendar. Teaching, perhaps more than many other careers, does revolve around a clearly defined annual cycle. Fresh start every September, pause for Christmas, assessments in the Summer…….Repeat.
One of the things that happens every year without fail is that pupils in Y11 and Y13 sit public examinations. I know this to be true because I have seen the pupils go through this rite of passage every year since I began as a teacher and it happened to me when I was at school. It’s not a particularly pleasant experience at the time, but all come out the other end unscathed and better off for it. Public exams happen every year. Except this year. This year is different and the departure from business as usual has knocked me off kilter.
This year promised to be a different one for me, personally. This year, like every other, I was going to be the teacher readying his pupils at school but, unlike every other year, I was also meant to be the dad supporting his own son’s preparation at home. I was looking forward to seeing it from the other side for the first time, in part because I knew it was likely to make me reflect on the way in which I engage with pupils in Y11 and Y13 in the lead up to exam season. The decision taken to scrap all GCSE and A Levels was shocking, surprising and in some respects entirely unbelievable. But….. also, entirely appropriate. Some things are more important than these assessments, a global pandemic being one of them.
The decision taken to scrap all GCSE and A Levels was shocking, surprising and in some respects entirely unbelievable.
But….. also, entirely appropriate.
In the Weston household it took a while for the decision to sink in and this was followed by a whole host of emotions – moments of what felt like loss, sadness, anger and utter despair, and that was just from me. But, as things in the outside world appear to have to get worse before they get better, I have started to question what these exams are really about anyway? If they’re about rubber stamping two years of study and intellectual development, then at least the two years of study and intellectual development have still happened. If they’re about proving to oneself that one can revise independently, cope with the inevitable stress and come out the other side, then pupils in Y13 have already demonstrated this at GCSE and the pupils in Y11 will have another shot at the real thing in two years’ time. If they’re about securing the grades one’s effort deserves in order to access the next stage in the educational journey, then the government has assured us that this is still going to happen. True, it’s a kick in the teeth for all our pupils who have worked so hard and it’s worse for them than it is for us, either as parents or teachers or both. But, without meaning to downplay what is a genuine feeling of frustration on the part of the pupils, this must be a time where we tell ourselves that the proverbial glass is, in fact, half full and not half empty. We can and should be investigating new opportunities now that we are uncoupled from the shackles of the public examinations system, albeit temporarily.
Step forward Highgate@Home, v1.1 and v1.3! As you will know by now, Heads of Department and their colleagues have been asked to devise remote learning courses that pupils in Y11 and Y13 will be required to engage with over the course of the Summer term. Freed from the constraints imposed on us by the examination boards, teachers have already demonstrated inventiveness and creativity in developing ideas for content, much of which will stretch and challenge our pupils more than the exams would ever have done. We teachers are excited by the prospect of taking the pupils in new directions and this promises to be a venture that will be of equal benefit to us. My own decision to expose those who have opted to study Biology in Y12 to a crash course in X-Ray crystallography is genuinely exciting, albeit an excitement that has seen my son rolling his eyes in a ‘you’re sad’ kind of way. Moreover, all this off-specification content is not going to be at the expense of the honing and fine-tuning of intellectual sharpness that normally happens in the lead up to exam season. It will happen, but by different means. Oh, and the fact that these sessions will all take place remotely means that pupils in both year groups will develop a level of independence that will serve them well for the next stages in their educational journeys.
So, rather than being down about the situation with exams as I admit I was, I think there is cause for real optimism. If rolled out appropriately, and I know it will be, then we have an opportunity to better equip our Y11 and Y13 pupils with the knowledge and skills that will see the jump up to A- or degree level study seem like a less daunting one. In difficult times, this can only be a good thing.
Ben Weston has been a Biology teacher at Highgate since 2003. He’s currently the Assistant Head (Teaching and Learning), having previously been both the Head of Biology and of Midgate House. For the last five years he has also been a Highgate parent. He admits to still finding it odd when he sits down in front of friends and colleagues at Parents’ Consultation Evenings.