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"The five A*-C GCSEs marker of ‘success’ is not right for all children"

An assistant headteacher and director of inclusion at a secondary school, explains why he doesn't agree with the education system's labelling and tiering of students.

As a classroom teacher, you can have as many as 35 students in your care at one time. Their needs and difficulties can vary vastly, but our expectations for each are meant to be the same: we are there to educate them in the curriculum dictated to us and to ensure they leave the school stamped with at least five A*-C GCSEs, including English and maths. This is seen as “success” and, ultimately, it is what society expects.

While we are obliged to adhere to this expectation through the structures of school accountability, we are not obliged to agree with it. Indeed, I think it is crucial every teacher questions whether this marker of "success" is the right one.

Is it right that we tell our young people that unless they attain this group of qualifications they will earn less than others? Is it right that we tell them their quality of life will be lower than that of their peers without those grades? Is it right that we tell these children they are worth less?

I don’t think it is right at all. We need to recognise that we are teaching individuals. For some, exams at 16 come too early; their development means they are just not ready at 16 to achieve what the government decrees is "needed". For others, that marker may remain too difficult to reach well into their 20s, 30s or beyond. These students are labelled as inferior, and are often under-resourced and potentially ignored. They are cast out by schools because they are not on that C/D borderline where results "matter". This labelling and tiering of children is not what I signed up for.

Within the system, it is hard to make a difference for these children as a classroom teacher. But I try. While my school has high expectations for all of its students, we try and teach in a way that shows that "success" means more than just grades on a piece of paper.

My expectation is that after every lesson I teach every student leaves knowing more than they did before they came in. My expectation is that I teach things students can use and develop in their lives, not just use to pass an exam. I am fighting a battle to let all students know that if they leave school with six to eight E grades and they worked hard, tried their very best and continually pushed themselves forward in their education, then that is still success, that is a wonderful achievement.

We should not be condemning a whole generation of students for not hitting an arbitrary marker, when success after 16 can depend on and be dictated by so much more.

Amjad Ali is assistant headteacher and director of inclusion at a secondary school in Oxford.

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