Do TV programmes like the Undateables and Special Needs Hotel give false hope?

I love to sit down with my partner and watch TV programmes like the Undateables and Special Needs Hotel.  For me I see lots of familiar personas and traits similar to the ones I might see at work.  For my partner it is light entertainment with some loveable characters. However you look at it these programmes are TV gold for the production companies but are they selling false hope to people who have special needs?

large_size_1024x576I’ve worked in special education for many years now and taught students with a variety of special needs.  It is great to hear from students who left us years ago, some even pop in to say hello.  When I hear from ex-students I’m always interested to learn about what they have done since leaving school, although too often this isn’t much.  Jobs for adults with special needs are in short supply and tend to be offered by people who have a personal connection to someone with needs in their own life.  The special needs hotel is a fantastic venture and one that needs replicating over the country but with recent cuts to government spending you would be lucky to get daycare provision from social care, let alone a sheltered employment or training place. We make a big deal of the qualifications we offer, and the development of employability and life skills because it’s a big world out there and there is competition for every job that comes up.  In an ideal world there would be a job for everyone, which is important not just for a earning an income and a sense of self-worth but also for mixing and developing those social skills further.


Boyfriends and girlfriends carry the same sort of desirability as mobile phones. Most of my students know they want one but they aren’t really sure what they are for and don’t know what to do with them if they get one!  The Undateables follows the romantic endeavours of adults with learning difficulties but this time they are looking for love with a special needs dating agency.  Dates are set up between matched partners and are chaperoned to make sure there is no inappropriate behaviour. Again the way the programme is edited does nothing to suggest that agencies like this as extremely rare and that the majority of special needs adults might not even leave the house or have friends, let alone go out into the big wide world on dates.

As a teacher who deals with special needs students I have mixed feelings about these programmes.  On one hand they serve as a source of inspiration to adults with special needs and their families that they can have a normal life and the things the rest of us take for granted.  On the other these programmes can give the impression that everyone can find a date or a job for them, which is far from the case.

I’d be interested to hear from readers of my blog what you think but in the meantime I will continue what I’ve always done, making sure my students get the best education they possibly can which includes academic qualifications and the best life skills education we can possibly offer so they can lead as independent a life as possible.

The ASE annual conference – what I learned and how to make it stick #asechat #aseconf

Having returned from ASE conference and started to unpack the wealth of resources collected there,  I feel that going was very worth while.  Attending the conference is about CPD, about recharging enthusiasm and networking as well as getting the latest news and ideas from the world of science educations.

With my role as a school leader, my choice of workshops was skewed towards assessment, progress and the new GCSE.  These were interspersed with practical ideas and workshops on literacy and numeracy.

The IoP had a heavy presence at the conference and they certainly had impact.  I went to two of their sessions and wasn’t disappointed.  I didn’t feel able to own up to the shame of being a biologist, but their sessions were as useful to me as to a proper physics teacher.  Medical physics had some excellent ideas on teaching X-rays (modelling a CT scanner using IR rays), teaching total internal reflection and examining the Doppler effect using audacity software.  There was a lot of information and a fair number of participants at both sessions I attended despite both having the 9 o’clock slot.

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In a session on assessment I learned how to use mini-whiteboards to demonstrate progress in an interactive session.  Lots of useful ideas and audience participation will help to make the ideas stick.  This was complemented with a “real” science teacher talking through evidencing progress in books.  This was similar in principle (but far more convoluted) than the system we use for marking (progress and literacy) at my school.

I went to several workshops with a GCSE focus – certainly enough to know that my students are probably going to get shafted as they have to recall more information (including equations) and recall the key practicals (which look to me like they are chosen from the most boring practicals featured in GCSE).  As well as curriculum briefings there were excellent ideas for the teaching of literacy and numeracy.  Both Ed Walsh and the IoP were giving the same message about equations – both proposed that students need to understand the mathematical principles behind them rather than learning formulae (or even worse – formula triangles).

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There are plenty of practical ideas to be had at the conference, the photos above show some ideas from CLEAPSS and SAPS that are suitable for use with students.  There were plenty of drop-in workshops although the timetablers seem to have put these at opposite ends of the campus which made dropping in and out within a single time slot quite difficult.

Another important aspect of the conference is networking and it was good to meet up with familiar faces from Twitter and the ASE.  Unfortunately the sheer number of workshops and the number of exhibitors in the exhibition hall mean that there isn’t much time for catching up.  To those followers who were there and didn’t get to see me I must apologise and hope to catch you next year instead.

So now I am back what am I doing with all the information I gathered.  I hate paper so I will be scanning all the handouts and materials from the workshops and attaching them to the notes I made in Evernote during the workshops.  These are tagged and searchable by keywords so I should be able to find them easily in future.  Because I am very organised and keep my planning and resources in tightly organised folders I can drop resources (for example SAPS practical guides) into the appropriate folder so they are waiting for me when I come to teach a topic again.  Of course this takes time which is a commodity in very short supply, regardless of time of year.

I’d be interested to hear from others what their highlights from the ASE conference were and what they do to make sure there is some impact from the workshops they attend.


The Christmas lesson – I’ve given in this year (free resources)

xmas treeLast year I didn’t bother with Christmas lessons (bah humbug I hear you say!) although I did the classic Cookie mix up the year before.

I recently followed a link on an email from the RSC which led me to this delightful page and I thought that I would give this a shot with my students.  Feel free to take what I’ve created and modify it to suit your setting and students.  I’ve also uploaded the same resource to the TES under a CC agreement (I did wonder how many £££ I have lost on in doing so!)

I’ve tried to include some ISA terminology so those of you who will still have ISAs to do (or a second ISA to do if the first wasn’t too good) can use this to reinforce some of the things that carry marks in an ISA!

Let me know how you get on with it – I haven’t shared any resources for a while so I’m a bit rusty! :)  Let me know in the comments how you stand on the issue of Christmas lessons.

Santa’s Candy Cane Calamity

santa07The links below are for the Powerpoint and accompanying worksheet

Santa’s Candy Cane calamity

Santas candy cane calamity

#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)