Is “Average” the ultimate goal for schools?

The relentless focus on C-grades in schools grinds away at aspiration and makes achieving the average the ultimate goal I am a maths teacher working in a secondary school in East London.

We have a “hit list” of 60 year 11 students in our school; their portraits neatly adorn the walls of our staffroom. These students wander the corridors in a permanent state of ashen-faced grimness, wearily dragging their feet as they move from room to room. They are the intervention cohort. The C/D borderline students who may as well wear sandwich boards marking them out as so, just in case their peers had somehow missed the fact they are being mysteriously removed from registration, summoned to endless booster sessions and harangued by every member of the senior leadership team who has had a quick look over the mark book of late.

They are victims of the C-grade culture: an insidious little plague affecting students and teachers alike.

The energy devoted to those students would likely be enough to power several counties. In of itself, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I wholeheartedly believe all that can be done to help students to achieve their goals, should be done.

Increasingly, I have also begun to worry also about the impact on student aspiration. Students in my school are painfully aware of the labels put upon them. If data collected some four years previous earmarked them as ‘C students’, they know about it. We share targets, discuss their progress with good intentions. We think that this transparency is helpful. For some, maybe it is. Yet nothing pains me more than hearing one of my bright, sparky year 10s say things like “Sir, can you tell me what I need to do just to get the C?”

So how has the government chosen to solve the problem of schools only focusing on their potential grade C students?

The new focus is to bandy around decidedly teacher-ish phrases like “expected levels of progress”. All students are now expected to make 3 levels of progress from the end of Primary school to GCSE.

So how does this work?

Now the interesting thing is that I am a maths teacher at the very same school as my daughter, so I will use her as an example.

She achieved a level 4 in maths at Key stage 2, her target subsequently was to get a C in maths at GCSE.

The school would have been very happy for her to get a C grade. My daughter would also have been content, as this is all that was expected of her.

I had to really persuade her to work hard at maths. It was a constant battle of me getting her to achieve the “remarkable”, as opposed to the school aiming for the “average”

She eventually gained a grade A at maths, two grades better than her expected progress.

I want students to want the very best for themselves, not the average. In so many ambitions, they strive for exactly that: to play for Real Madrid, not Gillingham; to fill the O2 Arena, not the Wolverhampton Civic Hall. A widely articulated, constantly reinforced focus on C-grades in schools grinds away at aspiration; it makes achieving the average the ultimate goal.

I recognise that there is no easy solution to the benchmark dilemma; I do not purport to have one. It will be interesting to see how the recent changes to how schools are held accountable for GCSE results affect student aspiration. The confusing way the changes have come about does not bode well for the future.

Mr. Adams