No excuses here — this is going to be a rambling bemoaning of my past two days….
Yesterday I spent a frantic hour with my Year 11 Maths class, trying to prepare them for their GCSE exam. (For most in the class, this was the third or fourth attempt at the exam). Whilst not the lowest ability class, it’s fair to say that for most, Maths has just not “resonated”. Indeed I spent an hour with 15 students self flagellating over “how stupid I am”, “how I’m going to end up homeless with a dog under a bridge” and the most worrying “I’ll never get a job” (their words, not mine)
Today I spent an hour with my GCSE Science class, preparing them in the same way. This group, specifically targeted at A/A* has already seen pupils achieving 100% in all the external assessments so far. The hour was equally self flagellatory, but this time “I need this to be a doctor / dentist / lawyer etc” and “I need this to allow me to go to the USA on summer camp”.
As you would expect, my experiences over 24 hours has been radically different – (both exciting and challenging for totally opposite reasons).
This led me to reflect upon the expectation for students to achieve C+ grades in Maths and English. In fact, as far as my experiences go, there is a tacit expectation that it is possible for most students to actually achieve these grades in Maths and English. Fortunately, Science is still perceived as hard so the expectation to achieve a C+ is far less. Now, with the reporting of CSI (including Maths and English), it seems that success in Maths and English is increasingly seen as ”non negotiable” and almost mandatory.
This, I think is responsible for my experiences yesterday with my Maths class. Whilst work to raise the profile of Maths as a foundation for future success has work well – indeed our A*-C results have risen year on year – those students at the “lower end” of proficiency are feeling devastated with the “failure” of a “D or E” grade, whereas 2 or 3 years ago, the same students would be celebrated for achieving such grades.
“Failure is not an option” has become a mantra that might just turn me into Michael Douglas from Falling Down.
By making success (defined by C+) at Maths so important we have removed the ability to celebrate for those students who work extremely hard but are capable of only achieving D/E. When they do achieve D / E, they have still “failed” - even though for them its a huge personal success.
Worryingly, that is the pivotal point — we talk as though all students are capable of achieving C+ grades.
Interestingly, we seem to accept that not all students are created equal with respect to Sport, music and art. We have “celebration” assemblies where the rugby team is applauded for winning a recent game; the Year 7 choir give a recital and we run a gallery for the GCSE art class. But, we don’t expect ALL the learners in the school to be capable of achieving those things. So we celebrate those that have the talent and personal commitment to work extra hard and achieve. Neither do we castigate those who DONT get into the team or sing or draw — we just accept that everyone’s talents are different.
Where are the celebrations for the Math “High flyers” who have just achieved 100% in examinations?
Maths (specifically) used to be like this. If you succeeded with an A/B grade you where seen as “clever, nerdy, geeky” – but respected (or teased) for being like that. C grades felt like “phew, passed but I wish I’d worked harder”. D grades felt like “sh*t I missed it” or “I deserved that as I did no work” –> but here’s the interesting bit for me — E/F grades felt like “I could never do Maths, but at least the exams are over now, and I can move on”. In an educational time when we are supposed to be more and more inclusive, we are creating a Maths underclass, by stigmatising those students who JUST CANT DO IT. My otherwise well adjusted students who will achieve “D/E” grades feel like total failures for achieving the best that they can.
So, for me — can’t we accept that (just like sport, music and art) that not all students are capable of getting C+ in Maths — and if they don’t, getting D/E for some is a real achievement in itself and should be celebrated. Let’s remove the expectation that everyone can pass – or even the thinking that everyone needs to pass.
I am advocating setting the highest possible standards and not giving up on students or accepting second best – but let’s not stigmatise those who achieve something that might not add to a schools CSI.