An algorithm for change

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Photo credit: Scott Graham

I have been a secondary teacher for 15 years, working my way up to Head of English and now Senior Leadership Team. I have always worked in ‘challenging schools’ serving areas of significant deprivation. It’s never been an easy ride and it often feels like the odds are stacked against our students and their communities.

Under the Conservatives, the odds increased: Michael Gove, guided by the now notorious Dominic Cummings, orchestrated an elitist new curriculum and assessment framework favouring middle-class high achievers and writing off the bottom third of students as failures. Of course, the majority of those students are from deprived backgrounds, have special educational needs and disabilities, or have been impacted by early childhood trauma.

We are judged on our ability to close attainment gaps and given poor Ofsted ratings if we fail. It’s hard to succeed when those gaps are societal and government policy is making them ever wider. Many teachers burn out trying and my heart goes out to them.

It’s the students that keep me going. They only get one chance at education and they need teachers to give them their best shot. And up until March, we did just that.  When lockdown started, before we knew GCSEs were to be aborted, we provided all of our Year 11s with a huge paper revision pack because we knew that so many of them had no computer access. As soon as we heard the news that they would not be sitting GCSEs, we worried about their mental health. We had spent months building them up to GCSEs and now it was all stripped away from them. We knew some of them would not manage social isolation and some were not safe away from school.

We wanted to help, but we were soon overwhelmed by all the other demands placed on schools: setting up distance learning systems, providing teaching for the children of key workers and for vulnerable students in other year groups, filling in endless risk assessments, creating and moderating the highly complex ranking system for teacher-assessed GCSE grades. It broke our hearts to cancel the prom: their only send-off from school was a woefully inadequate video message.

And even before results day, they knew that they were going to be given grades based mainly on an algorithm designed to favour schools with smaller cohorts and a history of high attainment – private schools. They read in the news that the coursework they had slaved over and the hours of revision that went towards mock exams was all pointless and even their teacher’s opinion counted for little.

When people are depressed, they feel that everything is pointless. The government have imposed the conditions of depression upon those who are already most vulnerable to poor mental health. I am fearful of the long-term consequences of the death of hope and justice on communities most likely to experience mass unemployment in the recession that looms post-pandemic.

But teachers have to stay positive. The pandemic has destroyed any illusion that our education system or our government is fit for purpose. These wronged students will be voting age by the next election; they are politically knowledgeable and full of fury. They will vote for change.

The writer is an Assistant Headteacher in a secondary school in East Sussex

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