Failed. Must do better.

BBC Headline:

Thousands of teenagers fail in GCSE English and maths

Well I was one of those failed teenagers who failed Maths, did it make me an out right failure or did I get that grade when I was able to and in circumstances that were more favourable? From the outset of my career back in 2003 my talents lay with the those pupils who didn’t sit still, shut-up or do their homework.

Imagine this, back in 2004 my first day teaching a whole class on my own- (I took the graduate training route, was offered a place on the PGCE at Goldsmiths but thought that 23,000k a year plus the chance to eradicate my student loan was very attractive indeed) I had five lessons back to back. I had been barely given a text book let alone preparation for what was about to unfold.


I walked in with then Head of English, a formidable women and a fabulous teacher. She introduced me, she told me I am up the corridor if needed and she warned the class. The silence and respect for her was imitable and both left as she closed the door. The noise erupted, objects began being thrown about the room, girls got out their headphones and make-up, boys threw insults and missiles.

Not one pupil attempted to even acknowledge my presence. I wasn’t afraid. I crossed my arms and stared, I spoke very quietly so that one by one they stopped, elbowed each other and gawped at me. I explained that I wasn’t supply, I wasn’t here for one day only, I was their new English teacher. One boy came up to me and with his finger in my face  said ‘do you know how many teachers we have had? What makes you think you’re special?’ I said, ‘because I will stay.’ He laughed in my face and said ‘we’ll get rid of you like all the others’ and my only response was to laugh, I told him if that’s a challenge, ‘you’re on’.

One of the girls looked up and she said ‘well she ain’t wearing lesbian boots, so that’s alright’ and she told the boy to ‘shut-it, knob cheese’.

So this unruly lot told me the story of their numerous teachers in their language and with honesty and one boy said, ‘bet you’re gone by half term too’.  It was the hardest class I have ever taught but also the most rewarding. These pupils had been dragged through the education system, none of them were going to get their 5 A-Cs but we, the educator and supposedly educated are going to measure them by the 5 A-C including Maths and English for the rest of their lives and we call them failures?

10R5 didn’t need Shakespeare or poetry, by year 10 they needed literacy and numeracy skills. The curriculum remains irrelevant to pupil’s aspirations, I am not saying that education should be elitist but I am saying is let’s make learning relevant and ‘personalised’. The personalised learning agenda is supposed to create a learning environment where all students prosper but how can they when they all have to sit a Maths and English GCSE and there is no countable alternative? As I left the UK, the government was changing the education policy so that BTECs couldn’t count towards the schools % of 5A-Cs. Pupils like 10R5 will suffer the most because they need the vocational qualifications that match their skills and aspirations and more importantly count towards their value and place in society. In Germany, vocational courses are ‘deeply embedded and widely respected’ *, it also benefits from public and private sponsorship. The UK needs a system like this to prevent the drop out rate from Further Education (FE) and being classified as a NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training) which is currently 15.01%.

10R5 wanted to be hairdressers, beauticians, plumbers, electricians and builders and they needed to know how to write letters of complaint, letters for job applications, CVs, they needed to add up and take away, find percentages and profit margins. They needed a curriculum in a language they could understand not the one that sifts every child through the same hoops and loses some at hurdles they just can not climb. Gove’s answer is to make pupils like 10R5 sit and do maths and English until they can. Pity the poor teacher but pity the poor pupil who is made to look like a failure until they are legally allowed to leave. This might make government figures look good, low unemployment etc; but there will be a deeper, unmeasurable effect on the psyche of the society’s most at risk of  social exclusion.

I can tell you tales from my own year group who responded to hard work digging a garden but couldn’t write an essay, those who would shift and lift all day but couldn’t sit still. I could sadly even guess which ones are now NEETs too.

Literacy and numeracy levels are lowest among this group because the curriculum isn’t relevant to them and will never be, but to mark them out as failures when it isn’t their fault, is society’s greatest failure.



About milkwithtwo

A blog about my experience as a Head of Year, looking at some of the issues faced by young people and teachers in the UK. Offering straight-talking child-centred advice.
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6 Responses to Failed. Must do better.

  1. MARY KNIGHT says:

    It’s a good piece but the government really wants the best for these pupils unfortunately because where they stand coming from culturally they can not understand how these poor kids live. They can only imagine the conditions and not fully

    Mary Knight London, UK


  2. I’m teaching my own 10r5 – mine are 9a5 🙂 I had an almost identical conversation with them when I joined the class. They too are probably going to engage in a trade, but we still have to cover certain topics. I was just curious as to what kind of activities you used in class to engage them? Mine are very active kids and find it really hard to stay sitting for a whole hour…

    • milkwithtwo says:

      Well good luck, for these type of classes I use rotational activities, so have groups of four or five and a bank of worksheets to get through, make it competitive and use music and a timer. For longer writing task, use a scaffold and do it paragraph by paragraph, peer marking as they go. Have one lesson per week where you focus on vocabulary and spelling etc and play games to encourage them. Also try the effort motivator, like a football league table. 3 points for lots of effort, 1 point for some effort. And get students to vote on who deserves 3 points. These classes are hard work but the more prep you do, the less likely they are to misbehave. Use the most difficult to your advantage, put them in charge of something like the league table scores. It won’t all work perfectly first time but praise and love them. What do you teach? If you want to collaborate on some resources or ideas, let me know via email, JK

      • I teach English in rural Australia – seems like great minds think alike! I’ve been doing a lot of those kind of things, but I hadn’t tried the rotational activities past things like jigsaw (which they hated, but I think I’ll try the worksheet thing). I like your league table idea – they want external motivators. Will definitely get in touch to collaborate!

      • milkwithtwo says:

        Great, I am very happy to help. Look forward to it, 🙂

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