Jules Daulby reflects on those students who may, despite effort, “underachieve” by our exam system’s values…

My daughter had her year 6 SATs this year. The day after she finished them we went shopping, ate ice cream and celebrated to the point where she told me she wished she did SATs every year.

She asked me why as her results wouldn’t be in until much later. I told her that she had put enough effort into revising for her tests and this was far more important to me than the piece of paper we’ll receive later. I emphasised that whatever the results, we wouldn’t be celebrating again.

It’s GCSE results today and the news will be one of success or failure. With the new grading system 1 to 9, the differences between learners is even more acute, the gap even wider. At what number will there be disappointment, 5? 3 or less is the cut off for having to retake English and Maths so many will be delighted if they’ve scraped a 4.

But what of effort? I know that some of my students who I taught last year would feel like they’d won the lottery if they achieved a 4 or 5 but due to SEND will not.

My goodness, they put the effort in though. One student worked so hard, every single day, to the point where he would be rubbing his eyes and yawning by lesson 6 and yet, still kept going.  There were many successes for him; his reading improved exponentially, he learned all the core muscles for PE and could follow a recipe and bake a delicious, upside down pineapple cake independently.  How will he feel today I wonder? What will our system tell him? Will society value the gargantuan effort he and many others put in despite finding learning so hard?

I sometimes wonder whether we have engineered failure for those students with the least resources available to them. Those most likely to ‘fail’ in exams are even more vulnerable and the answer seems to be to make it harder, take away anything that is perceived to make it easier such as practical assessment, coursework or an open book. Are we giving more advantage to those who excel in this system and further taking away from those who have SEND?

A recent visit to our offices from a Canadian teacher in British Columbia told us how they were planning a system with no exams. There was a sharp intake of breath; this is so far removed from our UK system that it’s inconceivable. But why? What have we become in the UK? An exam factory with a narrow curriculum and failing the very students who need education the most? Look to the exclusions, look to the rise in home education – could we dare to rethink our system to put a higher price tag on effort over ability? Is it possible for a child with SEND who cannot achieve a 9 to still feel valued for their hard work? Rather than changing letters for numbers, maybe we should rethink how we value effort?

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