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Do bad exam results mean you are a bad teacher?

By Mark Richards,

24 Jan 2020

As the dust settles - at least from the point of view of the media - on another year’s set of exam results; for many the reviews, reflections and repercussions have only just begun. Yes, GCSE and A level exam results are important.

They can dictate the path a young person takes next. But exam results can also cost teachers their jobs.

A poor set of exam results for a school can trigger what will inevitably lead a damning Ofsted inspection report.

This can have a devastating impact on a school.

For individual teachers, a disappointing set of results can halt pay progression, prompt the start capability procedures, and ultimately lead to them losing their jobs. So, it’s high time the question was asked: Do bad exam results mean you are a bad teacher? How do you define ‘bad results’ or ‘good teachers’? The first major problem with the argument that you are obviously a bad teacher if a class you teach gets disappointing exam results is a problem of definition. Ofsted grades schools as ‘Outstanding’, ‘Good’, etcetera.

But, even though the inspectorate has supposedly done away with grading of teachers in individual lesson observations, many schools up and down the country persist in apportioning graded judgements to teachers. Of course, such practice is inherently flawed.

However, the notion of labelling a set of exam results as ‘great’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is even more problematic. When does ‘okay’ slip into ‘not good enough’? When 2 pupils fail to meet their target grade, or 3 pupils? Or is it, to do with levels of progress? What if 5 pupils also over-achieved? Does that balance things out: a bit? Completely? Even assuming the absolute validity of target/progress data – which is massively optimistic and unlikely in itself – any attempt to arrive at a figure that indicates whether a cohort of pupils has achieved or underachieved never paints a full picture.

It never takes into account the nuances and unique and dynamic issues and problems that might have had a significant impact on the results of a class. Are exam grades totally reliable anyway? The next argument is a general concern about the reliability of exam results.

Just how robust and valid are the results awarded by examination boards anyway? Most teachers, at some point in their careers, have questioned particular results that students have been awarded.

The number of remarks requested by schools every year is large.

This indicates how high the stakes are for schools – a few remarks in a favourable direction can make all the difference to class and whole-school data.

Therefore, it’s no surprise that schools try everything in their power to improve their overall exam data.

There’s probably an element of wishful thinking in some cases when centres put in for remarks. Having said that, a study by the exams watchdog, Ofqual, reported that up to 40% of exam grades awarded in 2018 could potentially have been ‘incorrect’.

In any subject where extended responses are required – essay-style answers – the likelihood of discrepancies increases. There are too many variables to ‘judge’ exam results A conclusion drawn from all of this might be that there are simply too many variables in play to be able to make sound and robust judgements about whether exam results are ‘bad’ – or the extent to which a teacher can be ‘blamed’ for them. From the validity of existing progress data to the trustworthiness of exam results themselves, to the range of external factors and variants that can exist at a micro level in a school, it becomes nigh on possible to suggest that an individual class teacher is wholly responsible for the exam results that pupils in their charge are awarded.


1- Are the new GCSE grades making it difficult for teachers to predict a student's likely results?

2- Exams are getting tougher: Is there a secret of success?

3- Exams- How could they be done differently?

4- 5 reasons why all teachers should try being an examiner at least once

5- Thins that worth remembering on exam results day