The frustration that comes with the wrong assessment method

I’ve mentioned before that I train with a dog group.  The class is divided into classes from one to four, with dogs moving up a class when they are proficient and pass a test.

My dog has special needs and is extremely nervous around strangers, to the point she runs away from people she doesn’t know.  She’s reached the point where she is comfortable training with the people in my class but there are still a lot of strangers at training in the other classes.

Jasmine has demonstrated mastery of all the skills required to move to the next class and this has been observed by several of the trainers. Unfortunately, the club rules state she has to take a practical test which is observed by a trainer from the club.  Jasmine has what can only be described as a phobia of the lead trainer and so has panic attacks and runs away from him.

I’ve complained about the assessment method but the compromise put in place was only a minor change with the instructor stood a few feet further away.  Consequently, Jasmine is destined to fail each and every test that she takes.

So why am I writing about it here?  The feelings of frustration at being forced into an assessment method that doesn’t suit.  The feelings of failure when you can jump through what seem like impossible hoops. The feeling of experiencing an examination system that sets you up to fail. These are the feelings that my students have every day and after my experiences today I have a little more empathy with them.

Fortunately, I’m in a position where I can walk away from the training club (that’s my intention), but my students aren’t so lucky.  Spare a thought to your students with special needs and consider their needs and feelings at this time of year as they enter into a process from which they will come out emotionally battered and bruised, feeling like a failure.

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.

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

Ofqual changes to GCSE examinations – implications for SEN children

I received an email from an exam board today which said:

Ofqual have announced changes to GCSE qualifications which will be of interest to schools registered with WJEC in England and in Wales.

Changes in England

Ofqual, regulator for qualifications in England, announced that they will introduce changes to GCSEs for candidates starting two-year courses in September 2012.

 For awards in summer 2014 onwards, linear assessment will be compulsory for candidates in England. They will sit all their examinations at the end of their GCSE course, rather than having the possibility of taking them at different stages during the course as they do at present.

Further details of the changes are available on the Ofqual site here

Once again politics and Westminster teacher bashing takes precedent over the opinions and advice given by the teaching professionals who actually work with our children.  Apparently our exams are too easy and we have to do something to make sure they aren’t.  Of course these changes have far-reaching implications for our students, big ones for some.

My children are low attainers as you might expect (they attend a special school).   About half do entry level qualifications and the rest work at GCSE level.  There are children like mine in every mainstream school across the country – they aren’t that unusual.  These are children that have to be reminded what they did last week (sometimes they forget what they did earlier in the day).  These students will now have to remember what they learned up to two years ago.  Whilst it is possible to build in revision sessions (after all how can students with low literacy levels reasonably revise at home?), it isn’t possible to revise everything in sufficient depth for the students to do themselves justice.  I struggled getting enough revision in when we did modular exams.

So what is the answer?  Not only are the exams being made harder but at the same time pressure is put on schools to achieve better and better results.  The only conceivable way my students can achieve a GCSE-equivalent qualification that reflects their ability is to do a vocational qualification like BTEC where the assessment is portfolio based (although even this is being changed – more about BTEC changes here).

Of course none of these changes are pupil centred or put the student first.  Mr Gove hasn’t considered how my students will feel if I enter them for a qualification they are doomed to fail.   After the media and political attention drawn to the disaffected youth following the recent riots I thought the Government might have started to change its approach.

For now I’ll be plodding along following BTEC science with my students and trying to convince them as we go that they aren’t failures and that they have a place in society.  Let’s hope I am right!

The search for a suitable science exam for my SEN students

Day 23 - Exam hall


I teach students with special needs, many of whom have good science skills.   It was customary until recently that all students did entry level qualifications, but I decided to challenge my students more and push them into GCSE equivalent examinations.


First of all we tried AQA Core science (modular multiple choice), thinking that multiple choice exams would suit our students.  The literacy requirements of this course were an absolute joke and students didn’t realise their full potential because they were held back by the way the questions were phrased.  When I worked through past papers with students the structure of the questions was not at all logical and candidates frequently became confused.


Having worked with other schools on BTEC I decided to try level 1 BTEC (Introductory).  The first cohort through responded really well but subsequent cohorts were plagued with poor attendance (most of it genuine and for medical reasons) and late comers who had missed chunks of the course.  As we progressed through the course it became apparent that we were spending more time generating portfolio material than we were spending on the actual science teaching.  My students are unable to catch up on their own, and we have many significant holes to fill at the end of the course.  If you only had to reach 80% or so of the assessment criteria it wouldn’t be a problem, but 100% for my students is a big ask!   To add insult to injury Edexcel have changed from a pass/merit/fail system to a pass/fail system that carries an extremely low point score (and yet still has similar assessment requirements).  Needless to say we will not be following BTEC Science next year.


So the search is on.  I need to find a qualification that lets my students demonstrate their science skills.  It seems the government would rather test students on their retention and memory skills with the shift away from modular exams.  I’ve looked at specifications and many of the ISA’s/coursework assessments are very demanding necessitated by the fact our science exams have apparently been much too easy in the past…


My question to you is what qualification do you recommend for students who have special needs and poor literacy skills (their science skills far exceed their literacy skills)?  What qualifications are you planning to adopt with your SEN students this year and what is the rationale for your choice?  Any feedback appreciated.


Image © jackhynes on Flickr