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.
Whilst a bulletin was sent out to interested parties this week, there were no answers for teachers struggling to get to grips with what to tell their year 11 students (anecdotally I’ve seen less emphasis on predicted grades and more emphasis on what to do to improve their answers in schools).
The information did serve a purpose, and that was to remind me how my special school students have been let down by the system. In the email we are reminded “New GCSE content will be more challenging” which is depressing for students who were struggling, because of their learning difficulties, to cope with the content of the old GCSE exams.
We are also reminded that the boundaries have changed, supposedly “The new grades are being brought in to signal that GCSEs have been reformed and to better differentiate between students of different abilities.” What that means on the ground is that most of my students will fall within a two grade range rather than three. That’s hardly better differentiating between students of different abilities.
When you add these factors to the press (and government) talking about a grade 5 being a good GCSE pass and you can see why my students don’t want to take the exams. They are made to feel that their achievements are worthless and that anything below a 5 doesn’t matter.
A government talking about expanding grammar schools has little interest in those students at the bottom of the ability spectrum, but for my students, the GCSEs are becoming less and less accessible with more exams for less recognition and lower grades.
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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.