Poor exam performance at GCSE – is this part of a wider issue?

Poor exam performance at GCSE – is this part of a wider issue?

In my last blog article I tackled the issue of a high number of young people not achieving good examination grades in the vital subjects of English and Maths. One of the main focuses of that article was the appallingly high failure rate among those who resit GCSE examinations. In this particular blog, I am looking at a wider issue of the quality of teachers in primary schools.

A little story

About eight years ago, a young lady in her early 20s – whom I will call Agnes (not her real name) was enrolled at the Saturday School that I run to study GCSE Maths. This was to prepare her for a resit in Maths which she needed in order to secure a place on a teacher-training course. After she joined we realised that her level of basic arithmetic was so low, to the extent that she needed a calculator to calculate something as simple as 17 plus 3. Agnes is a very polite and extremely courteous and caring young woman and her parents are as good as you’ll get. They are such a decent and supportive couple who want the best for their daughter. Now, going back to the reason why this young lady wanted to resit her examination, which was that she wanted to train as a primary school teacher. I will not go too much into detail about Agnes but what I’ll say is that after a short while we had to advise her parents to withdraw her from our course as she was never going to achieve a C grade at GCSE in Mathematics. This is not a good investment of her time or her parents’ money. Also, the effect she may have on the other young people in the group we put her in would not have been good.

A wider issue – is there a high degree of numeracy among primary school teachers?

The short story about Agnes above raises a big question. I have in fact seen some primary school teachers whose level of basic Arithmetic is so shocking that I will never want my child or any child for that matter to be taught by them. I do not think it is necessary for a primary school teacher to have a Maths degree or even A-level maths. However, I do think the barrier ought to be much higher than it is currently. I would personally say that a minimum of a B grade at GCSE should be required for anyone to teach Maths to even a child in year one at a primary school. The second point I’ll also make about this is that students at KS2 should be taught Maths by someone who has at least a C grade in A-level Maths. This should not lead to a situation in which primary schools are having to recruit only teachers who have A-level Maths to be primary school teachers. What they will need to do; however, is to have two or three of those with a high degree of mathematical competence among their staff and for pupils to be put into Maths in groups based on their Mathematical ability from key stage two onwards.


It’s almost worse for English

Below are some of my observations among primary school teachers in the last couple of decades or so.

  1. A primary school teacher – who is also an art graduate – using the phrase “I should of” instead of “I should have”
  2. A graduate of History – saying “I writ” instead of “I wrote.”

Below is a conversation between students that I saw a teacher accepting and arguing that is correct. Not only was she not correcting the students, she was arguing that the use of English is perfect

Student A – “You are not stupid, are you?

Student B – “Yes, I’m not”

Use of English – is the society too tolerant?

In the above, example c could be grudgingly accepted as a change in the way society uses English due to the diversity that exists in society. As for examples ‘a and b’ there is no reason for accepting those.

Some of the above are becoming so common and even my own daughter once came home from school and used the word ‘writ’ instead of ‘wrote’ and I had to correct her. I must say that she attends a very good school and the teachers in her school are very good and extremely supportive to her

The English language is so beautiful and like other languages, it is evolving all the time. Part of that evolution is allowing new words to be introduced and permitting the way words and phrases are being used to feed into the mainstream. However, there is a limit and modernisation of the language needs to be done in a way that standard is maintained. If we are to adopt the notion of ‘anything goes’ too many young people will be left behind and there will be a state of confusion.

Do teachers need to be selected from the top of the pyramid?

When a teacher lacks basic numerical and grammatical skills, what chance does the student stand? If we look at most of the countries that top the PISA (Programme for International Assessment), teachers are choosing from the top 20% of graduates. In Britain, the teaching profession is not perceived to be one of the top professions and sadly, is not held in such high regard as it is in most of those countries at the top of the international league table. I certainly do not recommend that Britain goes the way of Shanghai, Singapore or even Iceland – where only the elite of graduates are chosen as teachers. However, the status quo is simply awful and the issue needs addressing if we are not to continue failing our young people in a competitive global economy.