SEN learners and the new science GCSEs

multchSince I wrote my last posts  about the new GCSEs (here and here) I’ve had several people get in touch to seek advice or ask what we are doing.  I’ve written this post to provide an update.


When the new KS3 curriculum came in we decided to shadow Activate science (I say shadow because I don’t use Kerboodle and I don’t use textbooks in the classroom).  We bought the year 9 scheme as well but quickly abandoned it as it turned out to be a dry parallel of GCSE topics.  That left me with a short KS3 and a three year KS4 to fill.

The current year 9 are the first to have experienced the shorter KS3 and with final GCSE specifications being a long way in the future we decided to do BTEC Science with year 9 and come back and make a decision ready for September.  I also have year 8 moving up to KS4 needing to start a KS4 topic.

My current year 10 have just sat AQA Core and have just started AQA additional, and my year 11 did BTEC science followed by AQA Core.  There has been lots of student anxiety around the three core exams (and lots of anxiety from me in my role as exams officer trying to provide the support awarded through access arrangements)

Where we are now

I had thought I knew what I was doing next year because of the lack of options. Entry level isn’t demanding enough, BTEC is, well BTEC, and there are no more single combined science GCSEs.  I was all set to choose an exam board and prepared a presentation for our governors to keep them up to date with our thinking.  There was much debate about the pressure placed on exams in sitting six hour of exams in whatever combination we choose, combined with all the extra demands of the new GCSEs that I blogged about before.  I also wanted to alert the governors there will be budget implications for the new required practicals.

Unfortunately discussion overran the time available and it was agreed to return to this at the next governors meeting.  I agreed to put together a little more information on the options available and these are what I’ve listed below.

Three year GCSE – Double award combined

Three year course, possibly with entry level certificate taught alongside for those who can’t cope with the demands of GCSE.

Either 6x1hr or 4x1hr45m exams

Two year ELC and single science GCSE

NC covered by ELC (taught to foundation GCSE level where possible so double science GCSE remains an option for the odd student).

Single science GCSE (probably biology) which count as a single GCSE in the sciences bucket of progress 8

Examined by 2x 1hr45 exams

Entry level and BTEC L1

NC covered by ELC and reinforced by teaching BTEC science.  Doesn’t allow for any student who has a target grade higher than an F and will make no contribution to progress 8.  Much of the BTEC content is dry and the focus tends to shift from learning to generating evidence.

iGCSE (with ELC?)

Edexcel/Pearson have a single science iGCSE in development but won’t be ready for accrediting students until 2019.  That leaves Cambridge iGCSE.

Exams 1x45min, 1x1hr15min and 1hr30 practical

My presentation to governors and staff

I’ve embedded the presentation I created – feel free to download and adapt it if you need to have similar discussions at your school.

Finally it would be great if you could leave me a comment letting me know what you will be doing with your SEN students or if you have any words of advice to share.

Why I always say no thanks to Sainsburys’s Active Kids Schools vouchers


Whenever I fill up my car or interact with a human at Sainsbury’s I’m asked if I’m collecting the schools vouchers.  In years gone by I used to religiously collect them and vouchers from other supermarkets as well.

Now I see the scheme for what it is – a shameless ploy by a supermarket to drive traffic into stores and get positive publicity for doing so.  Schools all over my area have their banners out proudly declaring that they are collecting the vouchers and students are reminded to bring in their vouchers.  Some even have leaderboards to encourage parents to spend more.

The sad truth is that parents and carers have to spend an absolute fortune in store to qualify for anything worth having.  Of course small schools are automatically at a disadvantage, as are schools where much of the catchment can’t afford to shop in Sainsbury’s and prefer to shop at a cheaper alternative.

If Sainsbury’s were serious about getting the nation fit they would target the money they spend at schools in problem areas, with high levels of inactivity or that have poor diets.  I bet Sainsbury’s could even identify these areas from their Nectar card data.

Of course we all know that the vouchers aren’t really about getting children engaged in sport but are a shameless loyalty grab with some free publicity.  For that reason I always refuse the school vouchers when offered (and for the same reason my school are NOT collecting the vouchers).

Only by refusing them when you pay for your shopping will Sainsbury’s ever change their approach.  How do you feel about the vouchers?  Are you prepared to join me in refusing them?

Choosing an exam board and specification for the new science GCSEs #asechat

Pupils sit their GCSEs

New specifications come into effect from September this year as the government continues the introduction of new linear GCSEs from grade 1-9 intended to be tougher and more challenging.  In the past schools chose an exam board based on content and assessment of the content.  To a certain extent there will be a lot more homogeneity between exam boards and even specifications from the same board as the content is dictated by the government.  There is also no single combined science option now – instead there is a combined science qualification worth two GCSEs (double award).  Single sciences also continue to be an option.  One of the biggest changes is the removal of the ISA and I’m still not sure how I feel about this as some students benefited and some students lost out under ISA.  Instead science skills will be assessed as part of the terminal exams which carry 100% of the marks.


Fortunately, we will retain tiers as I know this poses real problems to my students in English as they see the paper as very hard (since the same paper goes from grades G to A*).  Mathematics features strongly in the new specifications accounting for 20% of combined science as do enquiry skills questions which are work 15% of the marks.


With these changes common across exam boards the offerings of the major exam boards are very similar and challenges faced by schools will be common across all the exam boards.  This leaves schools free to choose exam board based on the support (or service) they receive from the exam boards, the structure or split of the final assessments and the wrap-around services they provide like KS3 schemes or Y10 exams.  Having been to meetings with all of the exam boards I have been impressed by the professionalism and way they have tackled the new curriculum.



AQA Edexcel


Qualifications offered Synergy Trilogy Combined science Gateway A 21st Century B
Overview Content split into topics. Ideal for 2 teachers – divides content into 8 units Traditional separate sciences – similar to teaching triple but less content Traditional combined Traditional science course similar to separate sciences. Applied science in association with York university.  Science taught in topics – not intended for those going on to do A-level
Assessment 4 exams – each 1hr45 mins long 6 exams – each 1hr 15 mins long 6 papers of 1hr 10 mins long 6 papers of 1 hr 10 min 4 papers of 1hr 45 mins
KS3 scheme KS3 scheme available. Plans to move into KS3 assessment etc (probably as a paid service) Five year scheme

11-16 progression scale

Online assessment and mark books (not free)

Set of excellent STEM projects to provide a transition to GCSE but not a full scheme for KS3 on their own. Could be used with Y9 for those that do a 3-year KS3 (are there any of you left?)
Wrap around services Excellent no-strings CPD sessions online (I’ve done two of them already!).  Y10 exam in development. Year 10 exam – externally marked (rehearsal for GCSE).

Two terms’ worth of free teaching and learning resources as a bribe 🙂 Online course planner.

Supporting materials published by Pearson (not free).  Exam-wizard is free with questions.

Free mock


Delivery guides for several/most of the topics covered and checkpoint tasks.

OCR weren’t pushing any fancy wrap-around services (and I don’t see any on their website) but when I saw them in person they had the biggest focus on the science content.

SEN ELC scheme co-teachable (is that a real word?) with GCSE.  New ELC to complement GCSE.  SEN friendly schemes available for foundation only ELC to run alongside GCSE.  Short topics with a test to help map to GCSE.

GCSE has saw-toothed demand so students don’t give up part way through. SEN friendly language

It was suggested that SEN students could do 1 single science GCSE and cover the rest of the NC through the STEM projects.  There is also a new ELC certificate as with other exam boards.
Other comments KS4 schemes available (several to fit different scenarios)


“start early, finish strong”

KS4 schemes available Layout of specifications very clear with misconceptions and mathematical content for each topic.

So which course are you offering in September?  I think I’ve nearly decided…


Recommended resource – The SAPS website


From time to time I like to plug a resource that others might not have come across.  This time I would like to draw your attention to the SAPS website (Science and Plants for School).

As a science teacher I can confirm that biology teaching can be the dull and lacking in excitement (compared to chemistry and physics anyway!).  Even less engaging than animal biology is plant science and this is where the SAPS site comes in.  Full of teaching ideas, practical tips and downloadable resources it is worth checking out if you teach about plants.

There is an informative newsletter that contains teaching tips and interesting facts to engage your students.  The website contains practical guides and interactive resources to enhance your teaching, many of which are downloadable for you to keep for next time.  There are resources from primary age all the way up to A-level so something for everyone.  Other useful strands include careers in science (I wish I’d had this when used to have to deliver the science jobs module in the old BTEC), cutting edge biology news and links to current GCSE/A-level specs.

Top Tip

Use Evernote to save the webpages and downloaded resources so you will always have access to them in future.



The Shell Bright Ideas Challenge

The Shell Bright Ideas Challenge


The Press Release

With three out of four of us set to live in cities by 2050, The Bright Ideas Challenge invites students age 11-14 to imagine the types of energy challenges these cities might face and to use their STEM skills combined with ingenuity and creative thinking to imagine innovative solutions to those challenges.

The challenge offers a blank slate for creative thinking with students challenged to bring their ‘Bright Idea’ to life using prototypes, technical drawings and even video.

By leaving the challenge deliberately broad, Shell is hoping it will attract the widest range of students possible and not just those that ‘self-identify’ as scientists. It hopes that the competition will inspire more students to make the connection between STEM teaching and careers that make a positive difference to the world.

It has also been made deliberately achievable in scope – with the challenge able to be completed in as little as 2.5 hours, making it a perfect challenge for a class project, STEM enrichment day or STEM club.

The thinking behind the challenge:

With Engineering UK predicting that we have a current annual shortfall of 55,000 engineers the challenge has been designed to encourage students to put their STEM teaching to practical use to help them make the connection between their classroom learning and their ability to use STEM skills to make a real positive difference to our collective quality of life in the future.

What the Challenge offers teachers:

The Teacher Toolkit gives teachers:
– Introductory video material to inspire their students
– Bite size, curriculum linked ice breaker team challenges
– Discussion points around scientific innovations that can be used as inspiration for the challenge
– Bright Ideas Catalyst Cards to inspire class discussion
– A Bright Ideas Report template to provide guidance for entries

Why enter?

We’re wanting to encourage as many schools to enter this brand new schools competition as the prizes are amazing.

The overall winning school will win £5000 towards super-sizing their STEM lessons!
11 regional winners will each win £1500 towards super-sizing the STEM experience at their school, plus each winning team member will receive a top of the range tablet as well as tickets to visit the unique Make the Future Festival in London.

Make the Future

Make the Future is a four-day festival of innovation bringing together the brightest future energy and science ideas from around the world in a spectacular event that will take you on a trip into the future.

There students will be able to experience the most innovative ideas from around the world via interactive shows, experience and challenges. They will also be front row spectators at the unique Shell Eco Marathon – a global race that will bring together 500 students from 50 countries around the world in a race for hyper efficiency. Students race in self-designed and built ‘cars of the future’ in a battle to see who can travel furthest on a single litre of fuel! With the current record standing at 3771km the stakes are high!

Deadline for entries

The deadline for entries is a couple of weeks after the Easter holidays on Friday 29th April at 5pm so there’s still plenty of time to enter.

My thoughts

Thanks for the team who handle PR for Shell for getting in touch.  The challenge looks like a lot of preparation has gone into it but I’d argue that the timing is a little ill-conceived with most secondary teachers focussing on GCSE revision at the moment.  Fortunately the competition is for KS3 students and the materials provided for students will help remove some of the workload for teachers who take part in this event.

The icebreakers are worth checking out and I will be using some of these with my KS4 students after exams (I have to keep them until the end of the year). They are relatively straight forward and don’t require a huge amount of special resources.

The main activity is a little less practical and seems more geared towards academic students than those disengaged with learning or who have additional learning needs.  Of my two groups who fall within the age range, one is busy with BTEC and the other group would not respond well to this type of activity.  My situation isn’t the norm though and I would urge you to download the materials and consider if you could take part (especially if you have STEM clubs or a STEM day for which this activity is perfect).

Have you taken part already?  Do you intend to take part or is there a reason why you can’t/won’t participate?  I’d be interested to hear your comments

Technology in science – the Motic WiFi microscope (first impressions)

motic2I’ve been meaning to buy a new microscope for ages.  My students struggle with microscopes (as do I as a spectacle wearer) so I’ve been keeping my eye out for something that makes life easier.  Credit to Catherine Mellor from Timstar who dropped me a catalogue off at work and then gave me a demonstration of the Motic BA-50 WiFi microscope at the ASE annual conference.  This product seemed to do exactly what I wanted (for the budget I had available) and I finally got around to ordering one this week.

I chose this microscope because it functions as an ordinary optical microscope and a digital WiFi Microscope.  This allows you to view the image on an iPad, mobile phone or even a laptop connected to a projector.  It works by acting as a WiFi hotspot (so there might be issues if you need to be connected to a corporate network whilst you are using it or if you are wanting to mirror your iPad screen over WiFi).  It comes supplied with software for PC and free apps are available for iOS and Android on their respective app stores (although paid versions add additional functionality)

I haven’t had chance to put the microscope through its paces yet but I tested the functionality using an iPad and the calibration slide in the box (I took it home for the weekend and forgot to fetch home some slides to use with it!).  The gallery shows the microscope and the image I snapped using the lowest resolution objective.    The build quality of the microscope is excellent – I don’t foresee any problems with it being use by the clumsiest of students.

IMG_0117 With compulsory GCSE practicals including microscopy work, a digital microscope gives a way to provide or enhance their experience.  I haven’t tested the microscope fully yet (using the highest magnifications) but I see this being a useful tool for teaching my (SEN) students how to use a microscope and I’m already looking forward to using it in my teaching.




Why the new GCSE specs are making me reconsider my future as a science teacher


I’ve loved teaching science in a special school.  Having left mainstream teaching many years ago (anyone remember Salter’s science?) I started teaching our students entry level and then progressed to GCSE/BTEC qualifications.

Being in a small school has given me the flexibility to teach how I want to using the methods and resources I want to.  I’ve seen successive governments come and go and carried on doing my own thing.

The more I find out about the new science GCSE exam, the less I feel I want to be a science teacher any more.  I decided several years ago that I don’t want to return to teaching in a mainstream school and made a choice to stay in a special school as a subject specialist (not a common post), passing up promotion and opportunities elsewhere to follow my heart.  I’ve always been proud of the achievements of my students and last year saw a return to GCSE and a bumper set of results.

Today a combination of events has made me wonder if I want to follow this path until retirement.  The first event was marking my GCSE mock papers which are always depressingly low.  This alone wasn’t enough to drive me to despair as they were low last year, we haven’t finished the course yet nor have we started to revise or ramp up the exam prep.  I’m sure teachers all over the country are feeling the same right now!

Tonight I sat through some e-training on the new AQA combined science GCSE and the maths and practical components of this course.  Unfortunately in putting together the new GCSEs there seems to have been virtually no consideration given to special needs students who seem to be overlooked in every aspect of the new qualification.

In moving to a new grading structure, many of the grades my students will achieve have been lumped together at the lower end meaning the most common target for my students will be a grade 1.  The jumps between grades at the lower end are quite large making it hard for them to move up the grading ladder.

Hearing about the new compulsory practicals is frustrating.  Again absolutely no consideration has been given to those teaching science in non-standard settings.  We are given a comprehensive list of practical experiments that we need to start teaching, in six months time, requiring thousands of pounds worth of equipment that we don’t have.  I asked the host of my e-training session what they suggest we do and their rather vague and unhelpful suggestion was to borrow it.  I’m a science teacher and deputy head with no technician.  I’ll hand my notice in and leave the profession before I’m reduced to constantly ferrying equipment between various local mainstream schools and my own.  That is of course assuming that there are departments local to me that actually have the equipment themselves and are willing to lend it to a stranger from another school.  It was suggested during the training that schools use demonstrations if they have insufficient equipment but that doesn’t address the issue facing schools that have none.  Awarding organisations will require schools to provide a practical science statement confirming that they have taken reasonable steps to provide these activities and failure to complete the statement will be considered malpractice.  If computer simulations are not acceptable where am I to suddenly find this equipment?

Of course for a government intent on returning us to good old fashioned Victorian style class teaching, demonstrations may seem a good idea but they don’t make for engaging science lessons if used in excess.

I haven’t even started to think about the maths context of the course and the demands that this will place on my students.  My current year 9 are putting the finishing touches on their BTEC portfolios before they start GCSE next year.  I’m wondering how they will cope with standard notation and all the graph work when many of them don’t even know their number bonds to ten.  AQA say the maths content in the foundation stage will be “not lower than that expected at key stage 3” which is helpful knowing that many of my students are around age related expectations of a year 2 or 3 student for maths.

I’m sure you can understand my frustration and I’m sure I’m not alone in some if not all of my concerns.  Teachers in special schools and other alternative settings must be asking themselves what have they done to face this huge barrier and what was wrong with what they were doing before.

I’d be interested to hear from others in similar settings and what plans are in place for the new (and at the time of writing unaccredited) GCSE specifications from September.

I’ll leave you with this little gem from one of my mock papers.



This is how I went paperless #asechat #ukedchat

I’ve investigated online planning systems before but never found an off the peg solution that worked for me.  I moved instead to a combination of tools that allows me to work without paper – no paper diaries and worksheets are printed on demand.

Lesson plans/planning

I don’t write detailed lesson plans as I write my powerpoints (or smartboard notebooks) to be the lesson plan, leading me through the lesson and and acting as a prompt.  I write my lesson plans in my online calendar (I use my work Exchange calendar but any online calendaring system should work as well).  I set up a repeating lesson with an empty lesson plan template and then edit individual lesson plans with activities etc.  I have blogged about my system before.


Teaching resources

I create and edit my resources at home (my powerpoints all have a very similar theme with learning outcomes in the footer).  I often grab YouTube videos using KeepVid which guarantees that they will play when I need them.  I have Dropbox on my own laptop and Dropbox portable on an encrypted USB flashdrive so that each machine has the latest version of every resource.  We have a Sharepoint drive at work for all our school documents so I only use Dropbox for my teaching outsources.  An added perk of using online cloud storage platforms is the ability to share folders with other teachers when required.



Every professional needs a to-do list.  I’ve tried all kinds of stand alone systems like Wunderlist but these didn’t work for me.  Instead have two lists – my inbox and a tasks list in Outlook.  I prioritise tasks to help manage my workload, marking tasks (and emails) for follow-up within a specific time frame.  I always aim for inbox zero but tend only to achieve this at the end of term as I catch up in the holidays.

I sync this list using the Reminders app on my iPad and using Nine (my exchange client) so that I can always add tasks as they occur to me.

Teaching ideas and articles

evernoteI read a lot of teaching blogs and articles in the media.  I’ve blogged before about using Feedly to keep up with blogs but I do follow other sources like the Guardian and the TES.  Some teachers use Pinterest or Google+ to bookmark interesting sites.  I did used to rely heavily on but I have concerns about the longevity of this site and so I have come to rely on Evernote more and more.  Evernote is hard to summarise in one sentence but I think of it as a sort of notebook and data storage/organisation system.

I store interesting articles into Evernote so I can find them later.  I also store seminar notes in here, for example notes I took at the ASE conference together with handouts and accompanying resources.

Advantages of being paperless

I’ve mentioned that I use my work and own laptops (I prefer my own as it has a higher resolution screen).  I also use an iPad and my phone.  The beauty of running a paperless system means I can access my documents on any of my devices.  Being paperless means all my resources are kept securely (with 2-Factor authentication protecting my accounts) and backed up by the companies who host them.


A new way of working for a new science GCSE curriculum #asechat


Schools across England will start teaching the new GCSE specs in September (assuming they are ever approved by Ofqual).  Some of these schools will be buying in schemes of work, some will write their own and some will do a mixture of the two.

I’ve seen groups on Twitter offering a chance to get together and write a scheme of work but this is only a starting point.  A scheme that is truly shared will grow and update as needs of the partner schools change.  That requires more than just an initial face to face meeting.  This was the premise of the Wikid Science scheme when it launched in 2008, here we are in 2016 and no further down this road.

I’ve always shared my resources online and through the TES, although I’m not as active as I used to be because of time constraints of my job.  Some of my resources contain images that I’ve grabbed online (yes I know about copyright but I’m busy…) and these are not shared.  The thought of having to sift through my resources and sort them out means they haven’t been updated in a while.  Of course a new scheme offers a new opportunity but I’d like it to be more than that.

I’ve toyed before with the idea of shared planning using a wiki but this time I’m thinking about a more Opensourced system with lesson plans (brief as I don’t write detailed ones) and with resources dropped alongside.  Of course this is subject to finding a good CMS to host it on (I was forced to stop using the document manager in my hosted wordpress blog because of security concerns).

Such a system would grow slowly over time although I could open up the uploading to trusted partners if required.

Comments, ideas and suggestions welcome.


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.