Getting your SEND learners ready for GCSE – part 3

Don't panic!

Now that you have your access arrangements in place and your students are starting to feel a little more prepared for the exam questions it’s time to think about the actual exams.

Routines – what to expect

A mock exam is extremely useful for SEND learners because it prepares them for what to expect in a real exam. I build up towards the GCSE exams with a set of classroom rules that we use for Entry level tests (which aren’t as strict as GCSE exams).  This prepares them for the conditions they will face but a mock exam is the best way to experience what the final exam will be like. If you have applied for access arrangements you will need these for your mock exam too.

Exam anxiety

Exam anxiety isn’t just a problem for students with SEND – I know countless adults that worry about exams. How you tackle anxiety will probably depend on your setting – all year 11 students would benefit but if this isn’t offered as standard you might want to do something as a department/science teacher/form tutor.

Where to start?  MIND produce an excellent booklet for students, intended to cover learners in all phases of education.  You can access their student landing page here.  They have a useful downloadable guide from which you can extract some useful tips to share with your learners (the intended audience appears to be university students).

Feeling anxious about exams is normal and students need to hear this message. Your job is to take away as many of the anxieties as possible that they might have – for example:

  • Overthinking about the exam
  • Putting too much pressure on yourself
  • Being un-organised for the exam
  • Not revising for that subject
  • Not planning in advance

Get students to plan out their routine when the exams are on – perhaps they can leave the breakfast things out the night before so they are good to go (some students might appreciate a checklist or visual timetable to help).  This should include making sure students have the appropriate equipment for the exam.

One of my colleagues at our sister school used to suggest worry baskets in which students are asked to write down the things that worry them, then to categorise them as things they need to act on straight away, things they can leave for now and things they have no control over (so they don’t need to worry about them).

Students can also be shown breathing exercises (there are many examples of these on YouTube, they can find one that works for them). Mindfulness exercises might also be appropriate for some learners with some useful resources here.

I hope after reading part 1, part 2 and now this post that you have a better idea of how you can make sure students are well prepared for their exams. Keep an eye out for more exam related posts coming soon.



Getting your SEND learners ready for GCSE part 2

As we approach the GCSE season we have to start preparing our learners for the exams.  Unfortunately, our SEND learners need a little bit of extra help with their preparations if they are to reach their potential in the terminal exams.


Special needs students find revision difficult – it can be difficult knowing what to revise and what the best way to revise is. Some students simply aren’t capable of revising without support and this is where we can take a lead.

I’ve posted before about spaced recall or retrieval practice. The theory is simple, the more you retrieve a memory the stronger it becomes. Ideally, four instances of retrieval can significantly strengthen a memory – so how do we use this to our advantage?

Spaced retrieval works best with a scaffold or structure rather than just expecting learners to highlight notes or read through their work. Two simple solutions are either graphical information organisers for students to summarise their notes or exam questions. If you are going to use exam questions for this, stick to simple recall questions that test A01 – you should be able to access plenty of these from old specifications that will serve the required purpose.

Applying knowledge

No amount of working at home is going to help these learners develop their application skills. These need to be modelled in a classroom environment so students have a method or scaffold to complete these questions. An excellent idea I heard at the ASE conference (credit to @sciencedouglas) which I’ve shamelessly stolen and reproduced below is a way of preparing students for A02 questions. As Euan stressed during his presentation, these are only useful as application questions if students haven’t studied the context in question.  Euan’s department teaches students to identify the science in an A02 question and work from there.

Confidence and self-esteem at answer questions.

Lower attaining learners often suffer from self-doubt and lack of confidence. Start off with easy questions and build up to harder ones at their targeted level.  Train students to check marks available and how to answer free response questions (this is a huge task so don’t underestimate how long this will take!)

Praise success and use your reward system to get learners on board – involve parents when possible.

Finally, remember that targets are just that. I say to my learners that I would like for them to be able to look back in future years and say I couldn’t have done any more, I did my best. If they’ve done their best that’s all you can ask for!


Getting your SEND learners ready for GCSE – part 1

We’ve reached that point where Christmas is a dim and distant memory in the past and our learners should have settled into the Spring term. Now is the time of the year we start to think about GCSE exams and all that entails. Planning for our learners with special needs just takes a little extra preparation if they are to reach their potential. In this first of the series of blog posts, I’m going to focus on access arrangements.

The principle of access arrangements is simple. You put the access arrangements in place to make sure that your special needs learners can access the GCSEs using their ‘normal way of working’  If you check the JCQ website you will find “The Equality Act 2010 requires an Awarding Body to make reasonable adjustments where a disabled person would be at a substantial disadvantage in undertaking an assessment.” This isn’t about rewriting the exam (the assessment criteria don’t change) but about some of the supportive measures you can put in place for the exams (that should mirror what is happening in the classroom).

Because the assessment criteria don’t change, students with SEND will sit exactly the same versions of the exams as the rest of the country, meaning there isn’t anything you can do about the huge amount of information they have to recall, or about the emotional pressures that high stakes examination testing might cause.

So what support can you put in place for students with special needs? Hopefully, you’ll already have these measures in place for the current year 11 but it’s worth checking to be sure.

The first place to look would be your special needs register. I exported a list of our students and their primary and secondary needs as listed on SIMS. I also asked each of the teachers for GCSE subjects to complete an internal form gathering information on the normal working practice in a typical lesson.  The aim of this data gathering exercise was to see who might need access arrangements putting in place.

The main access arrangements I’ve applied for as a special school exams officer are:

Extra time: (students with specific needs like Autism, SEMH issues etc might need extra processing time) 25% extra time is most common but I have been successful in applications for 50% extra time when this can be justified

Use of a reader/computer reader: We’d invested heavily in teaching and learning including accessibility tools for our students with weaker literacy skills. Some students were able to use a computer reader in their GCSE English exams and had the option of a computer or human reader in other GCSE exams.

Use of a scribe: Many of our students qualified for a scribe to write for them, and this is normal practice in GCSE lessons (and time is devoted to training them how to make this work in the exam). There are forms to complete by the person doing the scribing to ensure the rules are kept to.

Use of a word processor: A small number of our learners have used a word processor in subjects that call for longer passages of writing. Again this would be normal practice in the classroom in those subjects.

So how do I get these access arrangements in place for my students I hear you ask? First, check with your exams officer and SENCO and see what access arrangements have already been applied for (technically they should be in place for Y11 students but it isn’t too late if they are not).

It is an expectation of the access arrangements process that records are kept of the evidence, and schools are randomly audited on these (and these are also checked as part of the yearly JCQ audit). Many of the access arrangements can be authorised internally by the SENCO on the basis of the EHCP and normal working practice (which is why I collect evidence from all GCSE teachers!) The most difficult students to put access arrangements in place for are the students who have a general learning difficulty related to cognition. For these candidates, you would need to apply for access arrangements supported by evidence from a suitably qualified person. These would be reading and writing tests that evidence the learner’s level of need (many students have to buy in this testing as they don’t have an appropriately qualified person in school and training someone to run the tests can be an expensive business)

Of course, this is the easiest part of the process and timetabling the exams (and scribes/readers) so that students all have the necessary support can be a lot more work.  That isn’t any reason not to put support in place (I have heard of schools where access arrangements aren’t put in place for this reason).  The text below that applies to the process could be argued to apply just as much to the school.

The Equality Act 2010 requires an awarding body to make reasonable adjustments where a candidate, who is disabled within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010, would be at a substantial disadvantage in comparison to someone who is not disabled. The awarding body is required to take reasonable steps to overcome that disadvantage. An example would be a Braille paper which would be a reasonable adjustment for a vision impaired candidate who could read Braille.


  • Check access arrangements are in place for students that are in place that need them (and if not act quickly to put them in place)
  • Start preparing students for the exams (more to follow) including access arrangements for the exams

Science Teacher SOS and working smarter not harder

The ASE Science teacher SOS kit gives lots of useful tips for those who are struggling or considering leaving the profession. One of the most common reasons for teachers leaving is workload. Unfortunately, there is little the ASE can do to influence time-consuming policies at a school level apart from highlight good practice and signpost teachers to resources that can be shared with the leadership of their institution.

Sometimes you can be ruthlessly organised but still be overwhelmed by tasks and expectations – I know because that’s why I left my last post (the school acknowledged my high workload but didn’t know what to do about it)

Firstly if you haven’t seen the ASE’s Science Teacher SOS I’d recommend reading it and then putting a copy in your prep room or work area where other teachers can see it.  Be familiar with its contents – it contains some useful advice and guidance

I’ve posted before about my workflow and I thought it was worth sharing again.

Knowing what you have to do

I found that tasks came in two streams. Those that arrive by email and those that arrive through other means (e.g. face to face, departmental meetings). It’s handy to know what you need to do so you can map it to the time you have available. I have two ways of tracking what I need to do (and they are fairly simple to combine into a single stream) and that’s my inbox and my to-do list. My inbox is synchronised across all my devices and my to-do list is hosted by Todoist, my favourite online to-do list app (I chose Todoist because it links to Amazon’s Echo for those of you who have one of these!). It’s a fairly simple extra step to add emails into Todoist if you want to combine this information into a single stream (their Outlook and Gmail plugins are amazing!) Now you have a list of all your tasks you need to how to organise them into the time you have available…

Being organised

Being organised is about using your time effectively. Plan out your week – put in your calendar all your teaching, planning and marking sessions (you can either use your preferred electronic calendar or a paper-based system such as the one in the appendices of the Science Teacher SOS document) I chose to use an electronic version as I didn’t have to carry a bulky physical diary from one place to another with me. Electronic lesson plans are much easier to share – plan your lessons electronically on your calendar and invite your TA to the meeting, then they get a copy of your lesson plan too.

Some of the most ineffective teachers I’ve supported are disorganised. They have bags of papers (that are all muddled up) and don’t know what they are doing next and so they arrive at lessons unprepared and often late. Unlike other aspects of teaching, learning to be organised is a relatively easy fix – a quick Google will reveal lots of websites that can provide support.

Being realistic

Nobody can survive without the basics of food and sleep. Make sure you stop for lunch and have a break. If you have to work, stick to reading articles on the TES, I know many teachers who have spilt coffee or blobs of mayonnaise on student books, often followed by feelings of remorse.

Some useful phrases to have in your vocabulary include:

  • which would you like me to do first?
  • which one would you rather I complete?
  • I can do but not until….
  • I don’t have capacity/time to do that until…
  • I only have xx time available, what would you suggest?

Be sure to be a member of a union and keep up to date with their guidance on workload. Try not to be negative, if you can think of a simpler or more time efficient way of doing something then feed this back through your line manager. If you haven’t seen the “Reducing teacher workload” poster, read it and share it with your department who may not have seen it either.

If you are struggling, find someone to talk to. If you are an ASE member then you will find support through the ASE. You can also speak to your union who will lend you a sympathetic ear and give you some useful advice.

The highlights of my last twenty years

Today (Jan 1st, 2018) marks my first day of unemployment (or being self-employed as my optimistic partner reminds me!) following exactly twenty years at the same school.  The photograph shows me receiving a long service award at the awards evening for my academy trust.  Twenty years is a long time, and I’ve seen huge changes in both the education system as a whole and within the special school sector specifically.  It has also been ten years since I launched my website as a vehicle to share my teaching thoughts and ideas with a wider audience.

I’ve not kept a diary or journal so I’ve forgotten so many anecdotes and amusing stories (and probably many that I wouldn’t want to remember) but the highlights of the last twenty years that spring to mind are:

My resources

I’ve shared the resources I’ve used in my own teaching and I’ve shared ones developed with others as part of my outreach work (from my former life as an AST).  I’ve had hundreds of thousands of downloads and that’s just from the TES site, I’ve probably had as many from my own site (imagine if I charged just 50p for each download!) I was once dragged across a CPD event I was attending by an enthusiastic teacher who wanted her colleague to meet ‘fiendishlyclever’ as they used so many of my resources! When I announced that I was leaving my post I received the wonderful feedback below from a teacher I used to work with. I hope I continue to receive similar feedback in future.

My leadership

I haven’t blogged very much about my leadership, perhaps because I’ve seen myself as a science teacher first and a school leader second. It was a role I was thrust into rather than choosing to apply for, mainly because I didn’t have faith in my own abilities (fortunately others did!).  As a school leader, I’ve been instrumental in school improvement from being in special measures to being a good school (outstanding for leadership/PDW) and learnt many new skills along the way. It’s hard to quantify your own skills – you often don’t realise you possess a skill or talent until you come to use it. I’m proud of the work I’ve done to develop leadership skills in others and of the legacy I leave behind.  One of my defining moments was our recent award of Stonewall School Champions Silver – only eight secondary schools received silver in the two years that preceded our award.

My involvement with the ASE

Nearly eight years ago I attended a regional CPD event organised by the ASE. Not only was it one of the best pieces of CPD I’d attended up to that point, but it was when I was co-opted by our field officer to join our regional group.  Over the years I’ve sat on more committees and helped organise more CPD events than I care to think about, culminating with my first year as a presenter at the 2018 ASE annual conference (although I’ve presented at regional events before). If you haven’t considered joining the ASE I’d urge you to check them out, not only have I attended numerous amazing CPD days but I’ve met dozens of talented and dedicated educational professionals from across the country, many of whom I can call my friends.

My integrity

Having integrity can cause problems because the honest or honourable course of action isn’t always the right one.  Several years ago there was a discussion about grading individual lesson observations. I wrote this blog post which proved to be so popular that I received an invitation to see our (previous) CEO where I was asked to take it down. Fortunately, the academy has since become more open to discussion but I learned to air my more controversial viewpoints elsewhere under a pseudonym. It later transpired that I was right about grading lesson observations…

I hope my integrity has shone through the postings on my blog and in my dealings with the people I have worked with whatever their role.

So what advice would I give to others?

It’s hard to be succinct because there is lots of advice I would like to share.  One of the best pieces of advice I’ve come across recently came out of the #WomenEd movement and that is to “Be 10% braver“. This is excellent advice whether you are trying a new technique in class, applying for a new job or in my case a change of career.