And the results are in….. Reflections on two years of GCSE

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I’ve blogged several times on specific strategies I’ve used with the outgoing year 11 including an evaluation blog. Now the results are out its time to reflect on the impact these strategies may have made. The links to the blogs are hyperlinked where referenced.

The results were pretty much as expected, which I think were good. What makes results good results? Also there were some nice surprises that I’d really hoped would happen but weren’t 100%. I was going to publish their LOPs but then deleted. If you’re interested I ‘m happy to share privately.

Attitude matters

One of the students that achieved 6 LOPs is an interesting case. From day 1 she was keen to learn but struggled. She reflected all the time, many times being disappointed and frustrated. She was always the first with her hand up with the correct answer in class but when it came to writing, she struggled to get it down.

At parents evening, her mum told me their house was covered in post it notes. She always asked for more index cards for revision. She cared, she was bothered and she struggled.

In my opinion the reasons she did so well are:

  • Positive attitude (true growth mindset in action), self motivation, independence and organisation – I didn’t nag. She did so much work by herself. I encouraged and praised.
  • Simple AfL. She knew what she’d got wrong, she knew what she needed to do to make it better. I don’t mark endlessly at GCSE; just exam questions once in a while.
  • Determination – I continuously told her she can do it and she wanted it.
  • Early repetition of content – using the post its and index cards
  • I taught to the top, not to her ‘expected grade’. Giving out differentiated worksheets that are aimed at a grade is the biggest mistake a teacher can make.

It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it

That’s not strictly true but it matters a lot in exams.

One student started in year 10 with what I call big ‘bubble writing’. You know the type; 4 words to the line in large curvy letters (not with hearts as the dots of ‘i’s). Whilst handwriting doesn’t matter as long as it’s legible, I could see that it was limiting her ability to use the space for her answer in the best way. There was lots of ‘I can’t’ in year 10; whether it was a topic she didn’t like or writing in the time limit. I told her exactly what she needed to do to get her target grade. Year 11 could have gone either way.

With lots of practice and some more nagging, the handwriting started to shrink and the quality of the writing improved. She seemed to shift mindset. She started to show signs of becoming more motivated and focused. She was proud of her work. She kept her folder meticulously organised (using the majority of my poly-pockets!). I think that using folders at GCSE is so important, not necessarily for learning but for attitude. I’ll blog on this another time.

Test test test

When I emailed the second student to ask permission to write about her,she said, unprompted, “Tell your gcse students now that your key word tests do help lots”. I’ve blogged about these and the testing that I do with students. This group asked for more and established the current structure of weekly keyword testing that alternates between current and previous content.

My analysis of their papers shows that the majority of the students got 100% of these answers correct (out of 120 questions they answered on keywords, 4 answers got 0 marks). It’s impossible to analyse the impact that these had on other questions, but without an understanding of the keywords, they won’t have known what the questions were asking.

There is no doubt that this long-term strategy from day 1 made a significant difference. You must keep testing students. In my opinion, this no/low stakes testing was the difference in grades for most of the students. I also let them ‘cheat’ in tests taken in class.

We also did lots of topic testing, interleaving the topics throughout the course. They experienced several ‘full time’ exam practice papers, not just the one mock that the school calendared.  I believe this had a significant impact on knowledge retention.

I also interleaved the units (instead of teaching all of one paper and then all of the other paper). I can’t evaluate how they would have done if I’d taught paper by paper. This is the issue with in class trials; if you believe they might have impact is it right to have a control group that may not benefit?

We don’t learn without effort

So many teachers seem to think that children should ‘just learn’. That they’re some sort of sponge that will suck in knowledge and retain it. It just doesn’t work. If anyone ever says ‘but I’ve taught this to them’ without any sort of further action, they don’t understand how learning works.

In lessons, I planned this for them. Repetition of topics and structured revision lessons took some of the effort out for them. My aim for the next couple of years is to ensure that those that do not put effort in out of school have the structure given to them. They will be quizzed throughout the course.Homework will be the same from day 1 to the day before the exam; quizzing.  ‘Revision’ will be ditched.

What about those that have no effort? Whilst this post wasn’t supposed to be about mindset, it keeps cropping up. I’m not convinced that a teenager, that couldn’t care less about school will be changed by a whole school ‘Growth Mindset’ campaign. My strategies are: endless positivity, “You will do well if you bother to try” and peer pressure, “Your mate X is doing work”.

Know your enemy

It’s true to say that I was brutally honest with them. There’s no point sugar-coating things. I knew the grade boundaries would be ridiculously high (They were. C=76% and A*=96%. God help us next year). I taught them how to play the exam game and make sure they are all aware of what is required but also the possible hazards. Being an examiner helps. I made them do things that weren’t part of the exam assessment but I know had the potential to make a difference e.g developing reasons as two separate sentences, instead of one long punctuated sentence. I highly recommend examining for your exam board at least once and recommend negotiating with your school on how you might do this efficiently.

Of course, we can never really attribute specific things to results. For all I know, they had private tutors and learnt nothing in my lessons.

Overall, it seems that mindset and structured learning (simple AfL, memory techniques, interleaving, spacing) are the two keys to success; nothing too fancy in my lessons. For this class anyway.

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Why I think that setting students is a good thing & where it’s gone wrong

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I think that in many cases in secondary, students should be taught in groups with others that have demonstrated, through rigorous assessment (formal & informal) similar gaps in their learning. I believe that the arguments against setting are based on issues that are preventable by high expectations, clear systems and the professional behaviour of teachers.

The arguments against setting

It labels children and bottom sets are stigmatised

This only happens if it is allowed to happen. If the language used when referring to different sets is judgmental or in any way different then labels begin to stick. Don’t allow this language from teachers and students and it won’t be a problem. If necessary write it into a policy and always pull people up on it.

It seems that many schools have been very happy to relabel students with new key stage 3 models using terms like ‘master’,’developing’ ‘gold’ or ‘ beginner’ but are against setting. We need to ditch all labels and teach all students at the stage they’re at.

High ability students ‘pull up’ low ability students

This is awful. Truly awful. It is a teacher’s job to teach and ensure that all children achieve, not that of other students. Students are individuals in terms of progress, not a collective. I experienced this as a student and hated it; it was horrific. I wanted to learn and be stretched as an individual not have to help others that might not have the same level of understanding.

“Bottom” sets are poorly taught. Everyone wants the “top” set

Really? For a start that’s unprofessional. It’s also untrue. If the same systems for monitoring are used across the board then no classes should be poorly taught. It’s unacceptable for anyone to allow a class teacher not to have high expectations of every and any class. It is the role of leaders to ensure this happens. If we focus on progress, not behaviour, not attainment, then there is no difference in teaching any set; all teachers are working towards the same thing.

All students can achieve the top grade, setting limits this

Firstly, if you think that all students can achieve the top grade you’re deluded. That doesn’t mean we can’t teach to the top but if you genuinely believe that by setting you are stopping children achieve top grades you have some serious flaws in the teaching at your school. This is conflating high expectations with high attainment.

The students know what set they’re in and what it means

Even if you re-label groups, kids aren’t stupid, they know what set they’re in. So what? What does it ‘mean’? It doesn’t mean anything. The stigma comes from us. Why don’t we teach students to accept that we all have different abilities in different things? If our schools have a broad and balanced curriculum and extra curricular opportunities then all children should have the opportunity to excel. Pretending everyone is the “same” may not work in real life.

The arguments for setting

It makes teacher exposition simpler

Note it doesn’t change planning as such but when it comes to explanations and questioning, it is much easier to do this with a group of students with a similar level of understanding. It reduces the confusion there may be from those that don’t have the same level of understanding.

It stops students ‘switching off’

I once had a ski-ing lesson. I had never skied in my life before. In the group were people who had skied before and could clearly ski down the baby slope. I could barely stand up. As soon as the instructor went beyond my comprehension I switched off; I was bored and fed up. I just wanted to know how to start and stop. I didn’t learn this and fell over. I didn’t want or need to know about skiing on the higher slopes at that point. I now hate skiing and will never go again. You may argue that the instructor didn’t differentiate enough but how were they supposed to with a group of people that were all at different stages of understanding and experience?

It is unreasonable to expect a teacher to teach such variation in ability. If we insist on wide mixed ability grouping, how does it make students feel? Those that don’t understand and those that do understand and want to move forward quickly?

It makes individual targeting simpler

If I have a group of students that range from targeted grades G-A*, the combination of different areas for support are huge. Expecting a teacher to do this during a lesson is unrealistic. It promotes the nonsense of differentiating the lesson 30 ways for 30 different students.  A set is a micro version of a mixed bailout class; it doesn’t negate the need for differentiation but it reduces the complexity.

Using data to set ensures fairness

If we only use clearly defined and agreed data to set, it eradicates potential issues with certain groups. Research has shown that some schools (unconsciously?) set on factors that should never feature as criteria for setting: social class, behaviour, FSM, gender, attitude etc this is where setting goes badly wrong. Focussing  on progress using data is the simplest way to avoid these biases.

Where setting has gone wrong

  • Teaching quality
  • Setting for the wrong thing (behaviour, SEN, attitude, teacher’s preference)
  • The language used
  • Difference in expectations
  • Focus on attainment instead of progress

What needs to happen to ensure setting works

  • As soon as it is clear that a student needs to change groups, it should happen
  • Students should NEVER be moved set for anything other than their learning
  • Teacher language must always be positive and be based on high expectations for all. Certain phrases should be banned.
  • Teachers should teach to the top but with the correct support that the students/group need to access the top e.g no students should ever be told, you are targeting a ‘D’ and therefore you only need to get half marks.
  • Achievement should focus on progress not attainment.
  • Clear, agreed criteria should be used to determine the sets

I’m not anti-mixed ability. I think both options have issues and benefits. I don’t think that setting is appropriate for all classes in school. However the majority of the arguments I have heard against setting could be equally used against mixed ability and  some of the arguments I’ve heard for mixed ability can equally be applied to setting.

In my opinion the issues with setting probably take more of a shift to eradicate but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do it. Good teaching is good teaching but I think setting gives the teacher a bit more of a chance for supporting students as individuals.

Behaviour management: it’s more about belief 

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This blog will only make sense to those of you that have worked in schools with some challenging behaviour. If not, go work in one of these and then come back.

I’ve sat in classrooms where students have thrown things across the room and the teacher hasn’t seen. Where students have done no work and they haven’t been challenged on it. Where the entire class is chatting and the teacher has stood at the front carrying on teaching, regardless.

These lessons didn’t have these issues because the lessons werent all singing and dancing so that students don’t misbehave; this is rubbish. Perhaps controversially, I think that children’s behaviour is controlled by what a teacher allows to happen in class. Students have a responsibility to behave but if they don’t it is a teacher’s responsibility to deal with it.  If you can see the paper flying across the room or see an empty book then there’s something wrong.

There are some great strategies that teachers can use to promote routines and positive behaviour but unless you believe that these will work, they just become random actions. There are no ‘quick fixes’ to a challenging class, it’s the long term game of a battle of wills.

Students will only behave how you want them to if you have a 100% undying belief that they will behave. It’s a battle of wills not a set of strategies.

I’m like a dog with a bone. Students will do what they’re told in my classroom and if they don’t, there are instant consequences that will continue on and on until they realise that I always ‘win’. I usually say that I have high expectations but maybe I don’t. I expect that every student will do what they’re told when they’re told. That isn’t high expectations, that’s basic expectations. 
So where does it go wrong? 

With teachers that continuously struggle with behaviour there is a lack of belief, that leads to inconsistency:

  •  Either they don’t believe that that child can behave
  •  or they don’t believe in their own ability to deal with it 
  • or they don’t believe it is their job to deal with poor behaviour, children should just be good.

These are a recipe for disaster as they create a vacuum in the expectation & management of good behaviour. I’ve seen all three of these in my career. 

These beliefs manifest themselves in different teacher behaviours:

  1. They don’t believe that that child can behave-> excuses are made why the child doesn’t behave so no action is taken. “It’s just X misbehaving again”
  2. They don’t believe in their own ability to deal with it -> it’s too scary to confront so it’s easier to ignore it. Often these teachers don’t ‘see’ the poor behaviour.
  3. They don’t believe it is their job to deal with poor behaviour, children should just be good. ->it takes up too much time that they can spend on other things so systems aren’t followed

The difficulty is working with a colleague to identify which of these it may be. It becomes more of a soul searching exercise that some may not wish to embark on. It takes a lot to openly admit and then work on these. In some cases it means a change of personality of the teacher which is a step too far.

Poor behaviour comes from children, managing the consequences and redirecting the direction of behaviour habits is down to the teacher and their colleagues. It’s a really tough job but in 99% of cases, with the supporting systems, it is doable. But only if you believe it is.

The tipping point; when does more teacher work not equal improved outcomes?

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Teachers clearly work more hours than they’re contracted. Survey after survey finds teachers working 60 hours a week and teachers leaving the profession due to workload. However, from classroom to classroom, school to school, these hours spent working are not consistent. There are some teachers who don’t work ridiculous hours and yet their lessons are still taught and their students are still learning.

At which point, does doing ‘more’ make no difference to the quality of the outcome?

What is the minimum a teacher needs to do to be effiecient and effective?

How can schools run systems that maximise teacher time & support them in keeping workload manageable?

This post isn’t really about workload. It’s about considering what is the minimum that a teacher and a school need to do before the work and systems have minimal or even no further impact. How many leaders and teachers consider the relative time/cost of what they do? 

Examples may help explain my point.

Teachers

Some teachers spend hours and hours planning lessons. At what point does making an extra resource or an extra PowerPoint slide have little or no impact on learning, and could easily not be created, thus saving time?

Leaders

Most schools get teachers to enter data into data management systems. Some have to do this 6 times a year, what if this was only 5? Would it make a significant difference? What about 4 times? What is the optimum time that should be spent on this to have the most impact? When does it become a waste of time that could be spent on something that would have a bigger impact?


I do think there are some people that are addicted to work so work many more hours than they need to. Some people think aesthetics are important and spend time ensuring things are neat and attractive in their lessons. This is a choice. I want to consider where the line can be drawn between necessary and optional.

The biggest issue with working out where the tipping balance is that few things that teachers do can be directly attributed to learning but can be deemed necessary to support the process. Adding data to a spreadsheet doesn’t improve learning in itself but may have benefits to the teacher and leaders in order to further support learning.

We could work out a ‘worth it’ rating for everything we do. If it has direct impact on learning and is time/cost effective then it will have a high ‘worth it’ rating. However if it takes a huge amount of time or has little tracable impact on learning, it will have a low ‘worth it’ rating and needs to be ditched. Leaders should consider everything that happens in a school and work out how it can be completed in the shortest amount of time with the peak amount of impact.

What ‘worth it’ rating do these teacher/school tasks have?

  • Marking
  • Writing end of year reports 
  • Whole school meetings
  • Department meetings
  • Coaching
  • Line management meetings
  • Writing development plans
  • Performance management

Finally, it is important to consider variation between teachers. If you take a set of books for marking, one teacher may take 30 minutes to mark them but another teacher 2 hours. Some people can come up with a development plan in minutes and others in hours. Might these differences make the difference in the working hours that teachers use? Might it be useful for some school CPD to be directly focussed on training and supporting people in doing the core tasks in a time efficient manner? (Not a time management course, direct support for individual tasks)

The idea isn’t to get rid of everything teachers have to do but consider carefully how each thing is impacting their work hours. Linking everything back to learning is crucial and whilst we can never pinpoint exactly the impact each task may have we can consider the ‘worth it’ value, and tweak or ditch anything at the wrong end of the graph.