“When I was 11, I was more concerned about having fun with my friends and playing football” Exploring GCSE students’ perceptions of assessments and the performative culture in schools

Performativity is the outcome of numerous government policies around assessment and accountability which sought state-regulated reform for the purposes of economic growth and educational excellence. Such governance in education has led to individual practitioners living an existence of calculation in response to demands for progress, standardization and monitoring. These reforms have been set by non- teachers yet directly impact on them and their sense of professional purpose, identity and values.

Neoliberal ideology presents competition as a determining characteristic of human relations and pre 2019 this could be seen with Key Stage 2 tests being used by secondary schools to predict students’ GCSE results. Now these tests have been cancelled and how students will be assessed in GCSEs and A Levels this year remains unclear. It is time to hear another voice, the voice of students and their concerns; they are the consumers of our education offer: Is it kind, relevant to the world of work and ‘world-beating’?

This paper focuses on GCSE students’ lived experiences of the effects of performativity. A phenomenological inquiry was carried out with six students taking Religious Studies GCSE, my specialist subject. Interviews were conducted before the first lockdown in March 2019; students were given journals and asked to email extracts and absent students were emailed the set questions. To support students’ wellbeing and to limit stress, extracts and responses were not mandatory but gratefully received.

Performativity was defined in the information and consent forms given prior to interviews and students were made aware that their Key Stage 2 tests were used to predict their GCSE target grades. Some positive responses included: students recognised that target grades could be aspirational and motivating, good quality feedback from assessments supported students’ understanding and smaller classes helped them to receive individual support. However, all students felt pressurised to perform, and some felt overwhelmed by the time of five years to meet the expectations of target grades and the number of yearly assessments.