Why are we here? Because we are failing.

A year ago, I stood at the front of a Maths GCSE exam room as their invigilator and announced with a smirk that they could now turn over their papers, and begin. I should have known that smirking comes before a fall: I now teach this level of maths, and as such, I am not even allowed into the exam room. Things that amazed me last year – the candidate without a pen, the terribly big fake nails and their collision with the terribly small calculator buttons, the sleeping student at the back of the exam room – these are now just par for the joy of my everyday life.

This time last year, I wrote a post here trying to work out: how did it come to this? Why are all these students here, and why do they not care, just a little more? Have we failed them, have they failed us, or have they failed themselves? It’s a little of all three.

This post is motivated in part by training I have been doing through the Education and Training Foundation, who, as part of the process, have requested that we reflect on something we have learned that has changed our perspective or improved our teaching practice.* As it happens, in the week the training started, I had taken over a new maths group, so I tried out an exercise mentioned in the training to help me get to know my students better. I gave them two post it notes. On the first they were to write why they were here; on the second, to say how they would feel if they opened the little brown envelope (or more likely, the email that got lost in the spam folder and was only found the next day) and discovered the magical number 4 inside. The course tutor waxed lyrical about the exercise, about the perspectives it could change and the ambitions it could unlock. I can see why it might have that effect; that is, after all, why I wanted to try it myself. I am afraid to say, though, that is not what happened in my classroom. Here’s what happened instead.

Post-it 1: why are you here?

I encouraged an open attitude. No holds barred. Be honest with me – what went wrong last year? Why are you back in a maths classroom that is clearly only one step higher on your to do list that being entombed forever in a pit full of snakes? The answer I got back, from every person in the room? Because. I. Failed. Why did you fail? I asked. Was it because of bad teaching, or absence, or because you couldn’t understand the core concepts? Oh, none of those, they said. I just failed.

Five post it notes on a bright background. On them, my students have written: Because I failed; I don't know they down graded me; I failed; because I failed; because I failed.

This doesn’t just concern me; it horrifies me. Why? Two reasons. One is that they have written themselves off. They did not say it was too hard, or that the Covid pandemic threw up roadblocks other generations might not have had to surmount, or that somewhere in their futures, bright and glorious things might still await, despite their lack of a maths GCSE. This failure was a result of something lacking within themselves; no agency, no poor decision making; it just happened, as inexplicable as the fact that the sky is blue, and equally not to be questioned. This leads to my other concern: that there was no engagement, even then, with the idea that this might be subject to change. A self-fulfilling prophecy, there’s no question that they have failed, are failing now, and will always fail, and the suggestion that this might be within their own power to change barely even warrants a hair toss or glancing up from the screen in front of them.

Post it 2: what if…?

What if you did get that 4? How would you feel then? “Happy.” (Lyrical, aren’t they!) But it’s not going to happen. How do you know? I tried really hard last year and still got a 2; I’d rather fail because I didn’t try, than fail after putting the effort in; I don’t need it and never will, so what’s the point in being here anyway?

My style of teaching is all about authenticity, about relationships, about trust. I take the time when I first meet my students to build up that trust, to work on relationships and overcome those roadblocks, before I get anywhere close to trying to teach some maths. So yes, I can spot those responses as defensiveness and despair and delusion as easily as the next teacher. But this is where us failing them comes in. Education is not in a state at the moment to take the gentle approach. Teachers are leaving left right and centre, over-criticised, under-supported, overwhelmed. Learning Support Assistants are leaving to work in warehouses and earn three times as much per month. Classes are cancelled because groups get too small or the funding just doesn’t add up, with students moved like pawns on a chessboard, easy to sacrifice, the opening gambit of the game, never the focal point or the end result. How can authenticity, relationships, trust, stand up to any of this? And without those things, what hope do I have of my students listening to me when I make the links to why they’ll need this, or have a discussion about relevance, about ambition, about building on last year and aiming for progress, not perfection?

So what has this course, and this year, taught me? I have made connections between the functional skills I’ve been teaching for years and the GCSEs I’m new to. I have learned that students are students and maths is maths and barriers to learning will always be there, and it’s a wonderful thing to now have 5 different approaches rather than sticking to one and hoping it will always work. And I’ve learned that without both sides of the room being willing to be present, honest, and able to not just see our failures but also learn from them, no amount of breakfast maths or alternatives to worksheets will ever genuinely engage this particular group of kids.

*This post is, I’m afraid, going to get a touch negative. I feel I should stress, before going any further, that this is not as a result of the training itself. This has been invaluable, particularly for someone like me, new to this level and amazed by the amount of material out there to use, adapt, and throw out as appropriate. However, without something more, the materials themselves will never get out of the trolley that took them to the classroom and get to thrive in their intended habitat. This post is entirely about that something more.


You may turn over your papers, and begin.

I’m writing this post whilst invigilating a GCSE Maths exam* and, like most of the people in the room with me, wondering how in the world I ended up here.

First, let me set the scene, for those of you who enjoy a good horror story. My morning starts as well as Friday mornings ever do, though a series of personal, structural and Palaeontologist-related chaoses soon knock me off schedule. Setting up the exam room is so stressful that my Fitbit thinks I’ve done 20 minutes running on the spot, when I’ve actually just been working through what I should and shouldn’t display on the walls, the door, the desks. Still, at least that makes up for the following hour and a half, when I can do nothing but walk up and down the very short lines between very bored students. The kids themselves (and they are all kids in my room) fit every cliché in the book. We have the rebel, with spiky hair and a dragon ring. We have the one who showed up without a pen, and the two who showed up to the wrong room. We have the boy with Hugh Grant-esque floppy hair (when did that become a thing again?!) and the girl with a crop top and nails that will make the calculator paper a challenge, to say the least. There is a lad at the back (impressive, given they have no choice where they sit) who puts his hood up in the first 15 minutes and comes pretty close to falling asleep, and a guy in one corner who is enjoying the paper so much that he spends a good chunk of time picking blue tack off the walls. And, of course, there is me, whose whole outfit is based solely around shoes that don’t clomp and earrings that don’t jangle.

Back to my question: why am I here? One answer to that is perfectly literal. I’m here because six years of working in education have still not trained me out of volunteering to help when I know help is needed, and so I offered to step in when we simply did not have enough bodies to put in rooms to make sure the exams happened as they needed to. That answer needs more detail, though, as it is not a situation unique to us; you could say I am here because of decisions made by a variety of government departments, who have orchestrated years of ongoing cuts to Further Education, allowed trained invigilators to find other things to do during two years with no formal GCSE exams, and failed to alleviate an ongoing crisis in teenage (and adult) mental health. Students of all ages are more likely to need separate rooms, more likely to go into crisis on the morning of the exams, more likely to drop out altogether under the pressure they are currently under than ever before, which has forced schools and colleges across the country to rope in teaching staff to ensure the exams can still take place.

But why am I here is bigger even than that. The real reason I am here is because of the need to ensure that everyone going through education in this country, at some point in their lives, squeezes through this one narrow gateway. The expectation, of course, is that you go through this gate when it does not feel so much like a prison; it’s just one more exam in a month of pressure, nothing to see here, carry on through. And those who pass through comfortably, who achieve that magical 4 and move on, are then able to progress with the rest of their lives with no idea what horrors they have escaped. But what of the rest of them? What of the hundreds of kids in every town across the country who do not pass their Maths and English first time round?

Teal background with a tree trunk from top to bottom, and a fish in one corner. On the trunk are the words: "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid."
A wonderfully famous quote, proverbially from Einstein: Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

Don’t get me wrong: I am passionate about levelling up and ensuring that everyone has the skills to do a job they love. If I had a slightly less laissez-faire attitude towards my hair becoming as grey as the clouds over me as I write this, I’m sure I would be very concerned if my stylist did not understand ratios and the passage of hours. If a care assistant is visiting a friend, I would want them to be able to both read and understand the instructions left for them, and to adapt those instructions if needed for the person stepping into their place next. The construction workers building new homes on the corner really need to understand volume, area and converting measurements. I teach all these things in my classroom, and I will sermonise until the cows come home about why everyone, everyone, in this country deserves access to free Maths and English classes to ensure that they can develop these skills if they do not yet have them, whatever current government guidelines on residency may want you to believe.

But GCSE Maths is not the only way to measure how confidently someone can use numbers; and GCSE English is not the only way to judge reading. They are not the only ways to do this; they are just the easiest. Exams feel impartial; and we have all been conditioned to believe that partiality is bad. The Right might argue that exams are necessary because teachers cannot be trusted not to inflate their students’ grades; because exams were what they had In My Day and it never harmed anyone then; to make life skills commodities that can be weighed and measured and found wanting. The Left might feel that exams are necessary because they are anonymous, and so they cannot be subject to unconscious bias (as though anyone who has worked in adult education for longer than 6 months can’t immediately tell which land mass a student grew up on based solely on the style of their handwriting). Whichever side you argue from, you arrive at the point that exams are the only way to ensure that education is fair and we are all playing by, and judged by, the same rules.

This point, though, says that knowledge is worth something only if it is judged; that skills are worthy only if they meet assessable criteria. This is the same system that says that the worth of a person is the same as the salary they earn; that those who do not work for money do not work at all; that if we are not always consuming, and growing, and progressing, and doing more and more, and using more and more; if we are not doing these things, then we are failing.

What am I doing here? What are we all doing here? How have we ended up allowing ourselves to be locked into boxes that limit our potential and our creativity and our ability to be ourselves, and added insult to injury by insisting this is the only way to be fair?

A white page with a pencil and a pen. On the page is written "Am I good enough?"
Picture credit: Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

*By which I mean that I am composing this in my head whilst invigilating a Maths exam, of course. Whilst actually in the room, the rules are very clear: you are allowed to walk up and down and look over the shoulders and into the palms of each student to ensure that they have not unconsciously got their phone out mid-exam; you can breathe if you must, whilst making every effort to hold in the sighs if you see a wrong answer on the page in front of you; but you can do nothing, absolutely nothing, to distract yourself from Your Purpose during the exam itself. In my case, I couldn’t even stare out of the window (and neither could the candidates). There wasn’t one. Now that is forward planning on the part of the building designers, don’t you think?