They said “Change the Title! It’s too controversial”

…and I said No thanks: ‘Warning – Exam Season Turns Good Teachers into Bullies’

There’s something addictive about writing your truth, especially when you know you’re cutting through façades people like to hold onto.

My article was published with Schools Improvement Net in the run up to GCSEs, A Levels or whatever exams schools make students do this time of year. It was written to ask this question:


You know what? The responses were overwhelmingly positive! Like this from Jill Berry who’s really well known and respected in the UK Teacher community…


Here’s another raw response from a teacher…

It turned out to actually NOT be controversial at all! Now I really wish I’d known as a student how up for question our current schooling system is. Why is this such a hushed topic? Why do teachers feel such a need to present us with a unified front?

Was it all positive? ALL!

OK, except this one…anon2

…she’d teach dancing? No one’s gonna stop people teaching. Good teachers have students who go out into the world and say to other people; “Go and learn with this teacher!”

What if we just stop pretending that THIS is reality…

The ‘dancer’ my critic talks about is my little cousin. Her experience provides the case study in my article “Exam Season Turns Good Teachers into Bullies” here…

The self-congratulatory lull following syllabus completion is now officially over. All pistons are firing across the country with just days until the first GCSE exams of the year.

We’re guaranteed a peak in teacher stress at this time: but what’s the impact on students?

Students fall into three camps. First we have a minority of those who know what they want and these exams happen to be important for their path. These students don’t escape the stress, but they’re still the lucky ones. They have a reason to live with it.

Then we have the curious majority. These students aren’t completely sold on the idea that this knowledge, these skills or pieces of paper really are as important as people say. Their results will range from A* strings to ‘D-U-D-E’ depending on their level of compliance and, frankly, how sympathetic they feel towards their teachers.

Finally we have the growing collective of students who have created another way into life and for whom these exams are irrelevant, and they know it. This group ought to be celebrated for their ingenuity and courage in creating their own trail that deviates from the narrow path of school. Some of these students are natural exam takers and will get enviable results, while others may not show up on the day.


my little cousin

From September through to March many teachers recognise and celebrate this growing group of early bloomers. These are the performers who get the school stage, the young entrepreneurs in the local newspaper and the writers who take time off class to attend competitions but; now it’s time to get serious. Nothing has changed for students, but there is a sudden and uncomfortable shift in their teachers. The sense of panic sharpens the air followed by the silent plea to ‘please, please study!’

If exams were truly for students then teachers would be free to continue as their normal wonderful selves right through the school year. Instead of this we’ve decided to judge teachers by testing their students in exams the students never chose to take. The result: teacher stress ratchets to unbearable levels during the exam season.

Many of our teachers handle this maddening situation heroically, while others crumble and in their desperation resort to the tactic of injecting fear into the game. This is a dangerous cocktail putting our students on the receiving end of the attack.

Here is just one example that’s compelled me to speak out. When the Royal Ballet offered a full training scholarship to my cousin after the summer of her GCSE year she had great reason to simply enjoy the last months of school with her friends. She’s a dedicated performer and a beautiful dancer and everyone in her local comprehensive recognised this. The day after her offer, she arrived home from school and burst into tears. All she’d done was be honest with a teacher about the GCSE results no longer being important to her. Then the attack: “What if you break your legs?”

It’s horrifying to see the way our method of teacher measurement is played out in reality. Yes, what if something terrible happens? Is this the way we inspire love of learning and of life? Teachers are not to blame. Teachers are only being human in a system made in the minds of those who can’t possibly understand what happens in classrooms.

Why has an accountability system causing good teachers to fear-bribe students been allowed to exist for so long? Everywhere teachers are publicly rejecting the belief that student exams reflect teacher ability. There is less press on the unfortunate incidents that naturally occur when teachers desperately demand the learning they need from their students. The question remains: are we measuring teachers or manipulating them?

Until the system moves forward you’ll be pleased to know we can still do what we like. She went to the Royal Ballet and quit before the final year.

Not exactly the fairy-tale ending you were looking for? Read on…

Her teachers were delighted she’d finally found the courage to take her own path rather than the one offered by the prestigious institution; “We’re sad to see you go, but you are more than a ballerina Hannah and now we can help you do what you want with your talent.”

Where did she land? The London Palladium stage:


Interesting, isn’t it, that the Royal ballet – having paid thousands to train her – where more than OK with her decision to change course. She’d feared telling them, in case they lashed out, like that school teacher… but they didn’t. How wonderful!

Have you ever been supported in your decision to change course by the person or people you’re turning away from? How did that feel?