– tips and tricks

Do you use SIMS to do registers or to track behaviour? I was asked to run a workshop for an inset day on getting the most out of SIMS.

The slideshow shows:
Home screen tips
How to customise registers
How to run custom reports

Let me know if you find it useful – contact me if you want the presentation to use in your own setting.


#ASEchat – SEND special

quoteFollowing the publication of my article in the ASE’s EiS (Education in Science) magazine and on their website, I was offered the chance to host #ASEchat on Twitter with a special needs theme.

@viciascience opened with questions about specific needs which led to a discussion about visually impaired and hearing impaired students.  @cleverfiend raised the issue of specialist vocabulary and @viciascience promoted an event in Huddersfield on 21st Nov.

@DrWilksinsonSci said he gave out slips of paper for everyone to answer same question on, then some were picked to critique as a group, and the rest were checked by teacher later for misconceptions.

@cleverfiend asked if it was teaching SEN students that teachers struggle with or having to teach them within a larger mixed ability group.  @viciascience reminded us that their diverse needs could be hard to meet, especially when some are very demanding of attention.  Photography was suggested as a useful strategy and @cleverfiend added video, and with tablets tools like comic strips become a powerful tool.   ComicLife and HalfTone were suggested as good comic strip apps.

@A_Weatherall recommended a comic book about the universe which he had used with students

Kinaesthetic activities and practical activities were recommended by chat participants, for example modelling solubility with rice and peas.

Talking Tom was suggested as a good app to encourage reluctant or EAL students to speak in class.

Graphing was a problem, especially where maths ability lags behind science ability. @cleverfiend suggested checking out the old Science Year CDs from the ASE and advice from Anne Goldsworthy.  @ViciaScience suggested the AKSIS materials from the ASE for good advice on scaling etc.  IanMcDaid suggested gingham tablecloths and dry wipe markers.


SEN students and GCSE – how we achieved success


As a special school teacher I’ve taught GCSE before but changed to BTEC for many years, thinking the assessment suited our learners.  Recent changes including higher targets, variable attendance and a change in the performance tables all contributed to a move to GCSE.

I moved to teaching AQA Core A GCSE, and to do this I wrote all my own resources and ran the whole course without a textbook or a technician.

I did have some support with coursework from within the academy trust, marking their ISAs alongside experienced staff which meant my coursework marks weren’t adjusted.  I was expecting the coursework to drag my overall marks up but progress over the last six months meant the opposite was true.

As a result of this progress most of my students were well over target (upper quartile of progression guidance for those familiar with the terminology) and the estimated grades from my final tracking window were fairly accurate so what were my secrets? How did my students pull it off?

My first tip is to know your students.  I had secure KS3 data as a starting point (as I taught the students myself) and my targets were set in line with the upper quartile of progression guidance (aspirational!)  Every lesson I wrote my levelled learning outcomes with grades pitched from G to C and marked books with reference to these grades so that students could see every week where they were. Marking includes development points and students have an opportunity to respond to marking at the start of a lesson.

Exam questions should be slipped in to teaching lessons as well as revision lessons.  Educake provides a less intimidating way of testing what students know and is extremely responsive to suggestions for improvements.  My students would engage with this online system when they were tired and not in the mood for written questions.  Real exam questions are a valuable resource and I use the ExamPro database of questions to use in my teaching so students can learn tricks like counting the number of marks and making sure they give the information that the question asks for.

Practical work is an important tool that you have to boost comprehension, and one of the skills of the good science teacher is knowing when practical work is appropriate and when the practical work should be a demonstration or classwork.  My experience shows that SEN students benefit from the way practical activities can help them understand and link concepts, and it aids retention of information.

Discussion – don’t be afraid to go off topic from time to time.  My year 11 students were experts at asking me questions that took us well off topic, but they were engaged and interested in science.  I might not have the same depth of science knowledge as an A-level teacher but my knowledge is broad and related to every-day life.  My students enjoy science and lessons are engaging meaning all take part to the best of their abilities.

Mock exams.  Mentioning mock exams is like teaching your grandmother to suck eggs but they are useful for highlighting gaps and misconceptions.  Having smaller groups meant that many of my students sat their mock with me as the scribe, and I had a fairly good idea of what they were capable of.

Plan your revision.  Don’t assume that students will revise or even know how to revise.  We planned to have finished the content several weeks before the exam.  The first phase of the revision was to revisit the most difficult concepts, the second phase was to move on to past papers.  We follow the route with separate papers for physics, chemistry and biology which makes it easy to chunk revision and you can revise right up to the exam.

At the end of the day good teaching is good teaching.  You plan what you want students to learn and you then plan activities to make sure they learn.   In the past I have shared my resources on the TES and on this site for others to use.  Unfortunately I don’t have the time to keep this updated as my teaching resources are constantly evolving and being improved.  Weeding out resources where I have grabbed copyrighted resources off the internet or out of a textbook would remove key activities and the remaining material wouldn’t make much sense.  If you have a Google or Microsoft account I may be able to share a live (read-only) copy of my resources with you – use the contact option to get in touch if this interests you.

Many of the strategies I’ve used work for me because of my setting and the smaller group size, but I see no reason why most of them couldn’t be used in a mainstream school.

If you want to know more about SEN and science, join #ASEchat on Monday 28th September 2015 when I’ll be hosting the online chat on Twitter.

Why you need to read the final report of the commission for assessment without levels


Only a few days ago the Commission for assessment without levels published its final report.  I’ve written recently about assessment without levels and I know schools are struggling to come to terms with the next steps.

I would suggest that teachers at all levels read the report, because replacing levels is going to require a system that works from teachers at the chalkface, through middle leaders and up to school leaders.  There is much in the report to take on board.

At the heart of the report is the notion that whatever replaces NC levels is a new system and not just a replacement for levels in all but name.  It is a little disingenuous to suggest that despite being intended only for use in statutory national assessment that too frequently they were used for in-school assessment. I daresay that every teacher who reads this post could tell you a story of Ofsted coming in and expecting to see this, and despite the report assuring us that Ofsted is only one part of the national accountability framework, we know they are the one that wields the most power.

The report goes on to say that too often levels became focussed on thresholds and getting students through them.  With government policies like the catchup premium it isn’t fair to pin this blame on schools – and this legacy will live on through the inspection of impact of this money.

There are lots of points in the report that teachers will agree with:

  • The use of formative assessment and the clarification that formative assessment as a teacher intervention does not necessarily have to be recorded.
  • That your assessment policy should be clear that data should only be collected where necessary and ensuring effective communication of outcomes to stakeholders.
  • The commission observed that most teachers found data entry and management burdensome and time spent that could otherwise have been used in the classroom.
  • Schools should not devise a system that they think inspectors will want to see but instead should have one that works to support the achievement of pupils.
  • Assessment should be inclusive of all abilities (it’s a pity that Ofqual didn’t hear this advice when they came up with the new 1-9 GCSE grading system)
  • Levelled pieces of work are not good practice and the award of these levels subjective and open to interpretation.
  • Levels should not have dominated lesson planning and their use in discussion with pupils/parents/carers could lead to a mind-set of fixed ability.
  • The report includes a page [p17]on mastery (which is proving to be a definition many are having to get to grips with for their assessment systems) and is worth a read.
  • The report is clear about the distinction between assessment for formative purposes and in-school summative assessment and the need to make sure that the primary purpose of assessment is not distorted by using it for multiple purposes.
  • “Measuring pupils’ progress over a short period is unlikely to be helpful or reliable and it should, therefore, not be necessary to conduct and record in-school summative assessment for monitoring progress more than once a term. Ofsted does not require progress to be recorded with any particular frequency”

I would be interested to hear about examples from schools who are ahead of the game and have a system that meets (or perhaps doesn’t meet) the aims of the commission.  Please feel free to leave comments below (you don’t have to sign in or register to post)


Assessment without levels – where are you now?

Along with the new National Curriculum came the news that the levels were to be no more.  Of course we know that they were far from perfect, but many teachers have known nothing else and the thought of replacing them with something unknown strike fear into the hearts of the most experienced teacher.

Last year we decided to stick with national curriculum levels while we investigated a replacement.  I had a good idea what I wanted my assessment structure to look like (based on ideas from Activate in science) but life is rarely that simple.

We wanted a system that looked similar across the school, and then we had an additional consideration – we needed a structure that worked across the whole of the trust.  That is a system that worked across a mainstream secondary and secondary special school, with the possibility of working with a mainstream primary school as well.  On top of this we need a system that allows progress to be rigorously tracked and analysis of data to be done.

I recently received an email from Capita with the following infographic.


The infographic paints a depressing picture and it shows that schools have had difficulty making use of the new freedoms given to them by the government.   I’d guess that other schools have been faced with many of the same considerations that we have (the phrasing of the questions suggest that this data doesn’t include academies)

During the summer term we decided to buy into the system that Capita had developed to run in SIMS.  We played with the primary version but were waiting for the secondary version to be released to see what that looks like.

I paid more attention to the science system than maths and English since that affects me directly as a science teacher.  The primary science system has a bank of statements that teachers made a judgement against, with 4 different grades.  It will be interesting to see what the secondary science system looks like where the content is less tightly prescribed by year group.  What seems evident at the moment is that assessment windows will have to be looser with teachers inputting data when appropriate rather than at tracking windows, and that a lot more data will be collected (rather than a single level and a prediction).  Of course SIMS will do some computational magic and turn our statements into a numerical value that we can do whole school analyses with.

I’d be interested to see where other schools are up to at implementing a system to replace national curriculum levels.  Please leave a comment below

Why teaching children isn’t that much different to training a dog #NQTadvice


I’ve got a German Shepherd (that’s us the picture above) and we’ve started obedience lessons.  She’s 20 months old now and has some basic commands including sit, down, roll over and so on.  However just like teaching children, the real magic comes when you start to put the commands together.

The similarities

Consistency is key.  When training a dog you need to be consistent.  If the command is down then get down, sit down and similar, these commands will only serve to confuse the dog.  It’s the same with children, if you confiscate a mobile time the first time you see one but turn a blind eye the second or third you authority will be lessened.

Clear expectations and body language.  If I laugh at my dog while I give her a command (as I try to do when she is biting my ears) then it doesn’t work.  Although she hears the command, my body language says play. Children can read body language pretty well and you need to practice giving the message you want with your whole body – remember only a small proportion of communication is verbal.

Rewards work better than sanctions.  When I’m at training class I keep a packet of dog training rewards in my pocket.  When she does something really well she gets a sweet – shouting at her for not doing the right thing doesn’t help her to learn.   Whilst there needs to be a place for sanctions, it is easier to build a culture in your classroom based on positive behaviour.  Your consistent expectations will be the foundation that underpins this culture, but praise students, give out rewards and even phone the odd parent with a positive message.

Reinforcement works wonders. even the brightest and motivated of learners forgets.  We start obedience training with a recap and come back to skills within a session.  When I’m teaching I finish with a summary/plenary and start the next lesson with a recap.

Chunking and breaks.  When I’m dog training we take short rests or breaks and then do a different activity.  For example we might be doing heel walking, then we have a rest and do stay & wait.  The same approach can be applied to teaching where you include a range of different activities into your lesson.  This is especially useful for SEN students who can have an even shorter attention span than my German Shepherd.

Accept that most people won’t be a master dog trainer! I’m not training my dog because I want her to appear in the next BBC hit series or to be a viral Facebook sensation.  I’m doing it because it enriches her life and we enjoy it.  The more training you do with your dog, the stronger the bond becomes and the better the training.  When you start teaching don’t expect to be a master dog trainer.  Watch what the other teachers do and steal their secrets and methods.  Find your own style and don’t try to be something or someone you are not.  Learning to be the best teacher you can be will take time.

Learn from your mistakes.  My first dog training session was like something off the generation game with me walking the wrong way and bumping into the other dog owners.  I didn’t give in and you need the same resilience as a teacher.  Don’t give up when something doesn’t go the way you expect it to, dust yourself off and keep going.

Finally have fun with your students and enjoy the experience.  Don’t worry and enjoy the time you spend with your learners.


Would you mark GCSE exams? What if it were part of your job?


The government abolished modular exams, it devalued vocational qualifications and made the EBacc the measure of how a school is doing.  The push to examinations depends on two tiers of professionals with the right subject knowledge – the people who write the questions and the people who mark them. We are starting to hear that there is going to be a shortage of examiners and markers.

I have considered exam marking as a way to get to grips with teaching GCSE, and to really get a handle on what students do right and wrong.  Unfortunately two things got in the way.  Firstly I barely have time to mark my own students’ work, let alone a crate of exam scripts on top.  Secondly the money isn’t worth it, once you are taxed (assuming you declare it) the money you earn is reduced still further.

There has been a suggestion in the Telegraph today that teachers be forced to mark scripts if they want to progress (although the introduction of academies makes that difficult to enforce).  Without time to train teachers and then give them time to mark (would the government release teachers to mark exams, or would it expect year 11 teachers to do the marking once the exams have been sat?) this is a non-starter.

Of course the exam boards could get teachers to mark their own students’ work instead, but oh but we tried doing that with qualifications like BTECs (where the exam board charges the school for doing all the work) and that wasn’t rigorous enough.  Fortunately all of the teaching unions seem to have sensible ideas on the marking and teacher workload so this unlikely to happen.

Would you want to be coerced into marking external exams? How would you feel about marking exams as part of your job? How do we go about recruiting more examiners?  I’d be interested to hear your opinion :)

Image © ccarlstead on Flickr