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.


#ASEchat – SEND special

Following the publication of my article in the ASE’s EiS (Education in Science) magazine and on their website, I was offered the chance to host #ASEchat on Twitter with a special needs theme.

@viciascience opened with questions about specific needs which led to a discussion about visually impaired and hearing impaired students.  @cleverfiend raised the issue of specialist vocabulary and @viciascience promoted an event in Huddersfield on 21st Nov.

@DrWilksinsonSci said he gave out slips of paper for everyone to answer same question on, then some were picked to critique as a group, and the rest were checked by teacher later for misconceptions.

@cleverfiend asked if it was teaching SEN students that teachers struggle with or having to teach them within a larger mixed ability group.  @viciascience reminded us that their diverse needs could be hard to meet, especially when some are very demanding of attention.  Photography was suggested as a useful strategy and @cleverfiend added video, and with tablets tools like comic strips become a powerful tool.   ComicLife and HalfTone were suggested as good comic strip apps.

@A_Weatherall recommended a comic book about the universe which he had used with students http://www.jldunbar.com/home/the-universe-verse

Kinaesthetic activities and practical activities were recommended by chat participants, for example modelling solubility with rice and peas.

Talking Tom was suggested as a good app to encourage reluctant or EAL students to speak in class.

Graphing was a problem, especially where maths ability lags behind science ability. @cleverfiend suggested checking out the old Science Year CDs from the ASE and advice from Anne Goldsworthy.  @ViciaScience suggested the AKSIS materials from the ASE for good advice on scaling etc.  IanMcDaid suggested gingham tablecloths and dry wipe markers.


SEN students and GCSE – how we achieved success

As a special school teacher I’ve taught GCSE before but changed to BTEC for many years, thinking the assessment suited our learners.  Recent changes including higher targets, variable attendance and a change in the performance tables all contributed to a move to GCSE.

I moved to teaching AQA Core A GCSE, and to do this I wrote all my own resources and ran the whole course without a textbook or a technician.

I did have some support with coursework from within the academy trust, marking their ISAs alongside experienced staff which meant my coursework marks weren’t adjusted.  I was expecting the coursework to drag my overall marks up but progress over the last six months meant the opposite was true.

As a result of this progress most of my students were well over target (upper quartile of progression guidance for those familiar with the terminology) and the estimated grades from my final tracking window were fairly accurate so what were my secrets? How did my students pull it off?

My first tip is to know your students.  I had secure KS3 data as a starting point (as I taught the students myself) and my targets were set in line with the upper quartile of progression guidance (aspirational!)  Every lesson I wrote my levelled learning outcomes with grades pitched from G to C and marked books with reference to these grades so that students could see every week where they were. Marking includes development points and students have an opportunity to respond to marking at the start of a lesson.

Exam questions should be slipped in to teaching lessons as well as revision lessons.  Educake provides a less intimidating way of testing what students know and is extremely responsive to suggestions for improvements.  My students would engage with this online system when they were tired and not in the mood for written questions.  Real exam questions are a valuable resource and I use the ExamPro database of questions to use in my teaching so students can learn tricks like counting the number of marks and making sure they give the information that the question asks for.

Practical work is an important tool that you have to boost comprehension, and one of the skills of the good science teacher is knowing when practical work is appropriate and when the practical work should be a demonstration or classwork.  My experience shows that SEN students benefit from the way practical activities can help them understand and link concepts, and it aids retention of information.

Discussion – don’t be afraid to go off topic from time to time.  My year 11 students were experts at asking me questions that took us well off topic, but they were engaged and interested in science.  I might not have the same depth of science knowledge as an A-level teacher but my knowledge is broad and related to every-day life.  My students enjoy science and lessons are engaging meaning all take part to the best of their abilities.

Mock exams.  Mentioning mock exams is like teaching your grandmother to suck eggs but they are useful for highlighting gaps and misconceptions.  Having smaller groups meant that many of my students sat their mock with me as the scribe, and I had a fairly good idea of what they were capable of.

Plan your revision.  Don’t assume that students will revise or even know how to revise.  We planned to have finished the content several weeks before the exam.  The first phase of the revision was to revisit the most difficult concepts, the second phase was to move on to past papers.  We follow the route with separate papers for physics, chemistry and biology which makes it easy to chunk revision and you can revise right up to the exam.

At the end of the day good teaching is good teaching.  You plan what you want students to learn and you then plan activities to make sure they learn.   In the past I have shared my resources on the TES and on this site for others to use.  Unfortunately I don’t have the time to keep this updated as my teaching resources are constantly evolving and being improved.  Weeding out resources where I have grabbed copyrighted resources off the internet or out of a textbook would remove key activities and the remaining material wouldn’t make much sense.  If you have a Google or Microsoft account I may be able to share a live (read-only) copy of my resources with you – use the contact option to get in touch if this interests you.

Many of the strategies I’ve used work for me because of my setting and the smaller group size, but I see no reason why most of them couldn’t be used in a mainstream school.

If you want to know more about SEN and science, join #ASEchat on Monday 28th September 2015 when I’ll be hosting the online chat on Twitter.