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English and mathematics teachers’ perceptions of how high-stakes GCSE examinations are shaping relationships with their learners in one secondary school in England

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POPPY DALL’OCCO, ALEX MORGAN AND EMMAJANE MILTON, SCHOOL OF SOCIAL SCIENCES, CARDIFF UNIVERSITY, UK

Context

This article draws on research findings from a small-scale, qualitative case study based in one secondary school in England. It reports on an in-depth, thematic analysis of nine semi-structured online interviews with GCSE teachers of either English or mathematics. The findings reveal unsettling and concerning implications for the relationship between GCSE assessments and the wellbeing of teachers and their learners (Wilson et al., 2023), highlighting how the high stakes associated with GCSEs in these two key subjects are having a pervasive influence on the way in which teachers are enacting their role. In this study, key features of teachers’ pedagogy seemed to be entirely shaped by the test-centred curriculum imposed on them and their learners. Ways of working were reported to be obstructing the nurturing of teacher–student relationships and reducing the time available for individual student care (Noddings, 2012). Also evident was that significant ongoing pressure from accountability mechanisms focused on student achievement was perceived to place restrictions on teachers’ professional agency and curricula discretion. Unsurprisingly, teachers expressed dissatisfaction in their day-to-day experiences of placing high-stakes testing and outcomes at the forefront of their pedagogical practice. If replicated more widely, these findings could highlight the need to carefully consider the nature and legacy of GCSE examinations in relation to the quality of classroom experiences for both teachers and their learners.

Methodological approach

The methods, methodology and ethics of the study were developed in line with BERA (2018) ethical guidance and approved by Cardiff University. Nine semi-structured interviews were conducted within a single secondary school in England with fully qualified teachers, two of whom had been teaching less than one year, six who had been teaching for between three and 11 years and one who had been teaching for 27 years. These included four staff with leadership roles, of whom two were subject leads for English and maths for specific key stages. All these teachers took significant responsibility for the teaching of either GCSE English (n = 5) or mathematics (n = 4). The school was a large urban comprehensive, with the percentage of students on free school meals well below the national average. The school had over 100 teaching staff and 15 teachers in each of the mathematics and English departments. Immediately prior to the research being undertaken, Ofsted rated the school as ‘Good’, highlighting the school’s strengths in terms of academic success and emotional wellbeing of students, engagement in learning and how the governing body/leadership team created a positive atmosphere for learning within the school.

The interviews for this study were transcribed and a thematic, inductive analysis undertaken (Clarke and Braun, 2017). A further interrogation of the data deductively identified key areas of interest (Reichertz, 2014). Notable and concerning findings from the study included:

  1. a negative impact of an imbalanced focus on qualification and teaching to the test
  2. a negative impact on the classroom climate 
  3. a diminishing of teacher agency and discretion.

The negative impact of an imbalanced focus on qualification and teaching to the test

All nine teachers highlighted that their classroom practice and relationships with students were overwhelmingly shaped and driven by the need for good performance in the high-stakes GCSE assessments. They also reported that their day-to-day practice consisted of essentially ‘teaching to the test’. One teacher described how as they moved closer to GCSE examinations, classroom discussions became dominated by the need to optimise performance in a technical way: ‘You might be able to do it like that, but this is what you need to put down on a piece of paper.’ Another explained:

We’ve just got to get… them to say the right thing at the right time and that breaks my heart a little bit… You do hear schools being labelled as exam factories… that’s exactly how it feels… We’re just trying to almost play the system, so those students can pass and have a level of the subject that is acceptable by the government. And that’s not the way it should be at all, should it?

These teachers felt that their GCSE classroom practice became grounded in and almost exclusively orientated towards end-of-Year-11 exams. The focus became how to maximise the marks obtained at the expense of time teaching to privilege depth of understanding. Teachers reported working to ‘adapt’ their teaching strategies, spending less time on ‘doing something wonderful and creative’ and instead focusing more on drill and practice, with the aim of ensuring ‘commonality of experience for students’ as they approached GCSE examinations. It was also highlighted how teaching to the test created ‘tensions between the interests of the school and the interests of the student’ (Ball et al., 2012, p. 90), as lower sets were often excluded from experiencing content that wasn’t directly related to the topics likely to come up in their GCSE examinations. These students seemed to face a narrowing of learning opportunities, as teachers attempted to be more ‘effective and efficient’ (Biesta, 2015, p. 75) in their pedagogical practice. Mathematics teachers identified the flaw in this approach, especially for students in lower sets, due to the lack of time in each lesson to practise and embed concepts – a direct result of the standardised pace that was demanded of all staff in covering GCSE curriculum content.

If they are slightly weaker in ability and need more time to embed those procedures and concepts, then you can run out of time pretty quickly, and so it always feels like you’re kind of on the back foot, you’re moving on before they’ve quite got something and you’re trying to race on to cover everything but haven’t quite managed to cover everything well enough for them to actually understand.

This quote highlights the potentially problematic nature of working in this way, as Biesta (2015) suggests that the short-term gain of simply focusing on drill to the exclusion of meeting individual learner needs and developing depth of understanding can leave students feeling damaged, even less engaged and more disenfranchised. This approach inevitability negatively impacts the relationships between teachers and their students (Noddings, 2012), highlighting the human cost of privileging the school’s needs in terms of performance at the expense of individual learners.

There was a prevalent notion among the mathematics teachers of their reduced capacity to be attentive to individuals and a lack of opportunity to exercise their professional judgement. 

A massive reason as to why you got into teaching [is] because you care about the kids and you can’t even touch on that as a teacher, you just can’t… Kids who have got a lot of difficulties… a kid who has got a horrendous home life, it doesn’t matter because they’ve got to learn fractions and that’s very cold and wrong.

Another teacher explained that ‘I feel like I have sacrificed some of that teacher–student relationship building in order to hit curriculum goals’, adding that he felt like he barely knew his students. 

The negative impact on classroom climate

Biesta (2015, p. 78) notes the ‘severe stress’ for students that placing an overemphasis on academic performance can cause, especially where ‘failure is not an option’. Worryingly, the data from this study illuminated that a ‘jam-packed’ GCSE curriculum produced a ‘far more pressurised’ classroom environment that was ‘hard to plan for’ and ‘create[d] panic’ among students and teachers. One teacher described:

Yes, it’s really frustrating. And it’s too jam-packed. There’s too much in it… I’m sure the majority of people who speak to you would say the same thing from our school and from anywhere… There’s too much in the curriculum, which… reduces flexibility, frustrates teachers, frustrates students and… stifles the excitement and the flexibility to go… let’s do this interesting project or something that interests the students.

There was a clear consensus from teachers in both departments that creating a warm and convivial classroom climate and building relationships of trust with students had faced severe and negative consequences. Teachers felt less able to fulfil the role of the caring, empathetic, moral educator (Noddings, 2012), which they identified would perhaps better equip them to address the individual needs of each learner and optimise both teachers’ and students’ wellbeing through positive connections built in both the emotional and academic domains.

Restrictions on teacher agency and discretion

The findings demonstrated that the majority of teachers interviewed desired more professional agency, discretion and a departure from exam-driven pedagogies. As one teacher highlighted, ‘I’d be far happier teaching for understanding rather than teaching for process.’ Significantly, when asked whether they would make changes to the way in which GCSEs were taught, another teacher said, ‘We would all do it in a heartbeat.’

All teachers interviewed agreed that teaching to the test and the pressure of student achievement provoked a loss of teaching agency (Smith, 1991) and curricula discretion. The teachers felt restricted and unable to incorporate innovative practices in the GCSE classroom that deviated from the prescribed and examined curriculum. 

The timescales are ridiculous for certain topics… You’re literally just teaching, teaching, teaching and there’s no chance to be like, let’s go outside, let’s do a project, let’s do this… let’s see what it’s like in the real world, let’s go on a school trip… because there’s just no time.

Teachers described how teaching in this way towards GCSEs conjured feelings for them of ‘frustration’, was ‘really, really exhausting’ and could ‘be really demoralising’. The constraints on innovative practices seemingly made their jobs feel ‘unsatisfying’, ‘disheartening’ and ‘emotionally draining’ and they talked about having ‘thought many times about leaving because it’s tiring’.

Conclusion

The findings from this study, while not generalisable, illuminate the presence of an unsettling teaching and learning culture for staff and students engaged at GCSE level in this secondary school in England. If these findings were to be reflective of staff and student experience in other departments/schools, this would be a serious cause for concern. It highlights the unintended consequences for teachers and their learners, where the relentless pursuit of achievement and grades is prioritised over and above everything else during time at school. It raises important questions for schools themselves and wider groups of stakeholders who have a responsibility for the education and qualifications of young people.

A recent report from the House of Lords (2023) highlighted that GCSE curriculum content must be significantly reduced to allow more space for developing a broader range of skills and pupils’ understanding of core concepts’, specifically noting the perspective that ‘there is certainly a real tension… in the role of teachers. Is it to maximise the student’s performance, to maximise the school’s performance, or to be the guardian of a high-quality education?’ (p. 59) and ‘that the high-stakes nature of the current accountability arrangements is having a detrimental impact on pupils, teachers and schools…the system leaves school leaders feeling “captured” …teachers feeling demotivated and confined to ‘teaching to the test’; and pupils being encouraged to take courses which align well with accountability frameworks, “instead of what they would naturally flourish in”.’ (House of Lords, 2023, p. 83)

The findings from this small-scale study, if replicated in other settings, would support the need to carefully consider the form, content, approach to assessment and legacy of GCSE examinations, for both teachers and their learners, given the profound and potentially far-reaching implications for them and for society more broadly.

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    • Biesta G (2015) What is education for? On good education, teacher judgement, and educational professionalism. European Journal of Education 50(1): 75–87.
    • British Educational Research Association (BERA) (2018) Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research, 4th ed. London: BERA.
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    • House of Lords (2023) Requires improvement: Urgent change for 11–16 education. Available at: https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/42484/documents/211201/default (accessed 15 January 2024).
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    • Wilson R, Sellman E and Joseph S (2023) ‘Doing well’ and ‘being well’ – secondary school teachers’ perspectives. British Educational Research Journal 49(5): 987–1004.
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