GCSE 1-3 students – the forgotten cohort?

AQA recently released some very useful documents that gave feedback on the  2018 new-specification GCSE exams. As well as including common mistakes made by students, the documents gave entry numbers and grade breakdowns for each of the science specifications.

The entries for AQA are summarised below:

Specification

Foundation

Total

Higher

Total

Overall

Boy

Girl

Boy

Girl

Biology

8705

7984

16689

55547

57285

112832

129521

Chemistry

7556

6688

14244

54824

55516

110340

124584

Physics

7458

6805

14263

55001

54364

109365

123628

Trilogy

86803

77419

164222

55707

64283

119990

284212

Synergy

2305

1905

4210

814

790

1604

5814

I was interested to see that the take-up for Synergy was much lower than I was expecting. However more interesting is the difference in single biology compared to single chemistry/physics. I’ve spoken to several schools who have entered SEND students for single GCSE biology – and whilst this might not account for all of the difference in entries it is certainly a contributing factor.

I did some ‘back of a fag packet’ calculations using the percentages of grades awarded and a significant number of students gained grade 3 or below (figures in brackets include those with 4:3)  These figures won’t hold up to rigorous scientific scrutiny (in my defence I was probably paying more attention to the Apprentice on TV than the scribbled figures on my notepad) but they do give an idea of the percentage of the cohort that isn’t reaching grade 4.

% of Foundation

% of total entries

Biology

58%

7.5%

Chemistry

57%

6.5%

Physics

51.8%

6.0%

Trilogy

55.5% (72.5%)

29% (40%)

Synergy

29.4% (40%)

40% (52%)

Total exams

17% (21%)

I hear of schools putting all of their efforts (CPD, development plans etc) into getting students the 7-9 grades whereas the equivalent percentage of students getting grade 7 or above (calculated using the same method) was only a few percent higher.

Given that lots of students fall into the 1-3 bracket we need to pay more attention to how to support them. I’ve seen GCSE 1-3 CPD from STEM learning and the Science Learning Partnerships  (I’ve even run the course myself!) but my experience is that schools aren’t booking on these courses (perhaps because of a shortage of money or perhaps because of a shortage of capacity?)

I’m pleased that Oxford University Press is looking at this issue across the board, not just in science.  Their English Catapult scheme looks just as good as their new ELC/1-3 foundation tier GCSE textbook. They have products in development for your ELC/1-3 learners (but not all schools are able to afford them) If you haven’t seen their Foundation GCSE textbook, check it out (and also look at the principles behind it – and it is AQA approved)

Please make sure you focus as much attention on your 1-3 foundation learners as you do your 7-9 learners. They might not be EBacc students or have a full quota of Progress-8 buckets, but the success they experience in science might be every bit as life changing and motivating as hitting a grade 9 is for a higher tier student.

Life after teaching – two terms on.

I wrote several posts about leaving my job as a deputy head in a special school – you can find them  here, here and in the TES here (although I didn’t write the headline!)  I’d been with the school a long time, and more recently on a journey as deputy head from special measures through to good with outstanding features.

As many teachers do, I found myself questioning the hours I was working and the tasks that filled up my days. There was never a question of not being able to do my job, more an issue of not being prepared to do it any more.  I had hoped that exiting special measures would bring about an end to the relentless demands of the job but being so close to getting an outstanding judgement led to an increase instead of a decrease in workload. Rather than be signed off work, I thought a swift (and unplanned) exit would allow me to look for new opportunities that being off work with exhaustion would not.

As my leaving date drew closer I pinned my hopes on the hope that I’d be able to use the network of contacts that I’d built up and the fact that my face is known to many people in the world of science education. Having no mortgage I set myself an income target and started searching through online job adverts to see what was out there.

The Christmas holidays were barely over before I’d bagged my first interview after being sent an advert by a friend. It was at that point that I started to think that I might be employable and perhaps I wouldn’t end up on the street begging for money to buy dog biscuits! I was keen to maintain my salary level and to work fewer hours than before (after all I didn’t want to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire) This would seem to rule out a return to teaching as it would be a similar workload but on a vastly reduced main scale salary.

In the seven months since my leaving day I’ve learned some important lessons:

  • Don’t look back. It’s hard (I was at my last school for twenty years) and they will keep going without you. Break the connection and move forward. I have mixed feelings about my last employer – I feel resentment that they had a corrosive work/life balance (they were far from the worst school for workload but no trailblazer either!) but I still miss the pupils (and being a teacher)
  • Don’t expect the people you leave behind to miss you – they are too busy carrying on. I still hear from some of them with moans and gripes but on the whole, that chapter of my life is behind me.
  • There are very few posts for an ex-deputy head at even a teacher’s salary, let alone a school leader’s salary…
  • Very few employers want part-time workers. Many of those that do expect you to be self-employed (with all the admin and insurance that brings with it)
  • Working from home is hard. There are many distractions and setting up a workflow takes time. Harder still when you have to juggle several different employers (and a string of email addresses that require my attention)
  • Accepting part-time opportunities limits your options – for example, I have dates in my diary all the way through to next March. This could make it hard to accept jobs that are full time or that aren’t flexible. I’ve already withdrawn from one interview for this reason.

So what did I end up doing?

  • A local authority ran my DBS check and sent me into a school as an associate member of staff to support the leadership team. That was brief but provided the kick-start that I needed.
  • I wrote ELC and GCSE 1-3 resources for Oxford University Press on their Kerboodle platform (and also their blog)
  • I joined the Derbyshire Science Learning Partnership as their secondary lead. I also became a facilitator for them and have presented several times across our region. I’ve met lots of great people from across the STEM learning network whilst doing this.
  • I work for the Science Council and I run workshops for them across the country promoting their Professional recognition for scientists (I’m a Chartered Science Teacher myself)
  • I’ve presented several times for the ASE with positive feedback
  • I’m joining the ASE to help promote the Annual Conference which is in Birmingham next year (and promises to be better than ever)
  • I’ve had more time to attend CPD related to my role as a trustee for Global Education Derby
  • I’ve also spent more time walking the dog (a minimum of five miles a day) but I’m no thinner than this time last summer!

So the world keeps turning and I’ve carved myself a niche outside of teaching, although on a fraction of the salary (but working a fraction of the days). I’ve spoken to other teachers (some that left the same school and many that left others in similar circumstances) and realise that I’ve been fortunate in pursuing avenues that interest me and not having to turn to minimum wage employment or supply work to make ends meet.

I don’t know what the future holds. Most of my contracts have an end date and I can feel my credibility slipping further and further away as I spend longer and longer outside the classroom. I could return to teaching but it would have to be the post in the right school with the right department (and I’m not keen on starting at the bottom again!)

What advice would I give to anyone thinking of doing the same? Be prepared, start to pay down your mortgage and save up so you have a financial cushion if you need it.  Speak to other people inside and outside of the profession. Scan vacancies inside and outside of education so you know what the likelihood of finding another job will be. There’s lots of good advice in the guidance from the ASE (much of which applies to teachers of subjects other than science as well)

The Gatsby Good Practical Science Report

We’ve discussed the Good Science report several times at various committee meetings of the ASE. If you haven’t heard of it you must have been living in a remote cave or out of the country! A copy was sent to every school (I received one as the DHT) but quite often these haven’t been passed on. If you haven’t seen a copy before then you can download the report, summary and appendices from the Gatsby website. It is worth a read.

The authors of the report looked at practical science across the world and set out ten benchmarks for schools to use when planning how to do practical school. A school that achieves all ten should be delivering a world-class science education.

The reasons for doing practical science are

  • Scientific enquiry
  • Improve understanding through practising experience
  • Teach specialist practical skills
  • Motivate and engage
  • Develop higher level skills like teamwork & communication

The ten benchmarks for good practical science are:

  1. Planned practical science
  2. Purposeful practical science
  3. Expert teachers
  4. Frequent and varied practical science
  5. Laboratory facilities and equipment
  6. Technical support
  7. Real experiments, virtual enhancements
  8. Investigative projects
  9. A balanced approach to risk
  10. Assessment fit for purpose

I was fortunate to be able to attend an excellent CPD seminar this week organised by the RSC, Nottingham EIB and the Gatsby Foundation. The event was structured to help participants benchmark practical science provision in their own schools and start to develop an improvement plan.

The scene was set by Professor Sir John Holman who was one of the authors of the report.

We learned during the keynote that teachers around the world value practical work in science. They told the report

  • Teachers don’t interpret the purposes of practical science in exactly the same way as official documents.
  • Practical work creates a shared experience – or a level playing field (regardless of science capital)
  • Practical work is good for learning languages, through concrete experience
  • Practical work helps to understand the links to real life
  • A computer can’t reproduce the unpredictability of a live experiment that you get from practical work
  • Practical work can foster a respect for living things

So if you are part of a busy science department where do you start? With GCSE and A-level results out soon that need unpicking and analysing, schemes of work that need updating and timetables that need final tweaks there isn’t much time to look at ten benchmarks in detail. Schools are advised to focus on benchmarks 1,3 & 6 as these are enablers to the other benchmarks.  These are

(1) Planned practical science

(3) Expert teachers

(6)Technical support

which will help meet the target of 50% of science lessons containing a practical activity. Quite often 3 & 6 are out of the hands of the science department and are issues for government and the DfE.

Questions asked during the afternoon of the expert panel

The expert panel consisted of Professor Sir John Holman (Report author, RSC) John Dexter (Nottingham EIB, RSC) Marianne Cutler (ASE) Miranda Pye (Pye Tait Consultancy) and Dave Mangan (Nottinghamshire SLP)

Q – Are there any statistics/papers that demonstrate the impact of practical work in those schools or countries that do practical Vs those that do not?
A – There is very little quantitative evidence (partly because it is unethical) Practical work is intrinsic to science work -would you teach a language without speaking it? Is all we want to score highly on GCSE or should we be encouraging learners to follow a science career or to study science further? Do you worry that our curriculum is too narrow? They can pass exams but can they work as a team or present the results from something they’ve done to an audience. Practical work helps with preparing students for life after school for a productive life and to contribute to society and the economy.
Q – Has there been any interaction with Ofsted.
A – John Holman” be careful what you wish for” Matthew Newberry has fed back that Amanda Spielman knows about the report. Amanda had spoken about a change in the balance to the quality of the curriculum.
Q – Technicians – are there any academic references to the impact of technicians on outcomes?
A – John Dexter – unlikely to be any because of other local factors. ASE has technicians survey.  Could we do more to find out? John Holman – could a study put unnecessary pressure on technicians. A potential study wouldn’t work on exam results (too crude) but could on the retention of staff
Q – Do all countries do less practical in biology?
A – Biology practicals typically have a long setup, can be unreliable, take longer to run. There is a role for guidance from subject associations. Germany doesn’t do any microbiology because of health concerns so situation varies locally.
Q – Is this down to KS2?
A – Quality of science provision at KS2 depends largely on staff but some very creative work. More secondary schools are coming back to KS3 and looking how to bridge the gap between KS2 and ks4.  ASE resources for primary on their website. John Dexter mentioned the wasted years report.
Q – Will there be guidance about lab design for Benchmark 5.
A – John Holman had visited lots of labs and UK ranks well above average. Not the highest priority issue but with reconsidering in lab design. If you have world-class science labs, why aren’t you funding the staff & skills required to use them to their potential? Dave Mangan – it is possible with creative timetabling to share a smaller number of labs around a larger number of teachers.
Q – Why use the word policy? Why not a practical handbook or mission statement?
A – ASE writing policy with 12 schools. Card sort around what is a policy and what are procedural documents. Policy underpins what you do in your school and your setting. For the purposes, nature, planning and implementation of practical work. Health and safety is a supporting document. Those that already have a policy document were focused on administration and running practicals rather than the principles that underpin. Needs to involve all members of the department. John Dexter – Ofsted might go to policies if they don’t see good science in the classroom – ditch the admin in department meetings and talk about poetical work
Thoughts from the group I facilitated during the afternoon
  • A model policy must be usable, short and not long, waffly and full of gobbledegook.
  • We need time for CPD and to share information and good practice between departments
  • Needs to go back to ITT, one school reported they are worried about SCITT students and exposure to practical work
  • One school said they would share a practical session to department meetings as well as sharing good practice
  • Technicians – increased funding won’t be ring-fenced so unlikely to reach science departments. How do you convince SLT (who often don’t understand what they do) of their worth?
  • Would be useful to have specific examples of best practice in practical work
  • Are departments becoming more compartmentalized as more subject-based teaching happens at KS4? Is this getting worse with the shortening of KS3?

Anecdotal reports are coming through of Ofsted inspectors asking about the report, however, this is likely to depend on the background, awareness and subject specialisms of the individual Ofsted inspection team. I would strongly recommend that heads of science are familiar with the content of the report and have started to consider its implications for their own departments.