Opinion: This is what GCSE students really feel about this year’s tests

Even before I got to school this morning, there was a feeling of wearying familiarity surrounding GCSE results day. This week has seen the Tony Blair Institute call for an end to GCSEs, a counterproposal from the Institute for Government advocating more measured reform, warnings about a north-south divide in attainment, and the usual litany of celebrities braying about their success after flunking their own exams.

As usual, however, the voices of the students themselves were absent from the debate about what GCSEs mean – a particularly glaring oversight for the cohort who have faced the most disruption in recent memory. Speaking to them this morning about their GCSE results revealed that they feel plenty of optimism about their results, but that those who’d struggled the most during the pandemic were facing the bleak consequences of government failures.

The mood at school was one of astonishment and relief. Despite almost half of our students coming from deprived households and more than 70 per cent speaking a language other than English at home, our students had made progress well above the national average, with Pupil Premium-eligible students in particular scoring almost a whole grade higher than we would have expected.

The sports hall rang with squeals of delight as children compared their grades, and emails of thanks from the most unlikely candidates appeared in my inbox. Meanwhile, the sixth form team were reviewing students’ A-level choices, and parents and teachers posed for selfies with their proud charges. After three years of untold disruption, the joy students and staff shared was a welcome return to normality.

But as ever, the seats round the edge of the room told a different story. On days like today, the kids who need teachers the most are the ones who would rather be invisible to them. The students still bundled in their coats and hunched over their results sheets, or forcing a smile for their head of year and then making a beeline for the exit, or leaning against a wall while speaking in a swift, hushed voice on their phone.

These are the “forgotten third”, the students who could not achieve a grade 4 in English and Maths at age 16 and who will now find progressing to the next stages of education an uphill battle. Most heartbreakingly for me, the students who didn’t meet the standard were overwhelmingly the students who’d borne the worst of the pandemic.

“My head wasn’t really in it”, said one of my students who’d lost a parent to cancer last year. Another student, who comes from a Traveller community and has suffered appalling poverty and discrimination, walked into the hall and out again without uttering a word to any member of staff, knowing before opening her results that she’d failed. One girl in my class had to donate her phone to her wayward twin brothers during online learning, preventing her from keeping up with her own work. As she saw that she’d missed a grade 4 in English Language by just a few marks, she sobbed.

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It’s for these children that my heart breaks. These are the ones who, more than any others, were in desperate need of support from the government during the pandemic. For the rest of their lives, their CVs will bear the scars of a National Tutoring Programme scandal, a digital divide that the government failed to respond to, a crisis in funding for further education colleges that undermines the hope of top-quality teaching, an unproven new vocational option amid BTEC defunding, and a cost of living crisis that may push some of them onto the bottom rungs of an inhospitable labour market far earlier than they would have wanted.

By making GCSE passes ever more imperative while simultaneously stripping away the funding that helps our most disadvantaged students to meet the mark, the government has exacerbated existing inequalities in education and made levelling up a laughable fantasy.

At no point today did students complain about having to sit GCSEs. They know instinctively what the data shows, which is that exams are consistently the least unfair way of assessing their progress. What they don’t realise, however, is that the severe consequences of not passing exams are the result of political choices that knowingly undermine the most vulnerable children in society. The government has created a sink-or-swim culture in education – it’s time for them to admit that they’re the ones who’ve opened the floodgates.

William Yates is an English teacher at a secondary school in west London