This much I know about…what the new GCSEs tell us about our students’ attainment

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about what the new GCSEs tell us about our students’ attainment.

Before you read any further, I would like to make it clear that I welcome the increased academic challenge of the new GCSEs…

I might have missed it, but…why has there not been more discussion about the grade boundaries in this summer’s GCSE mathematics examinations? The examinations were made harder, the students found it more difficult and so the grade boundaries were reduced by about 15%. Here is the EDEXCEL Higher raw grade boundaries for 2017 and 2016:

June 2017 Raw mark (out of 240) June 2016 Raw mark (out of 200)
9 190 (79%)
8 157 (65%) A* 170 (85%)
7 124 (52%) A 140 (70%)
6 96 (40%) B 105 (53%)
5 68 (28%)
4 41 (17%) C 65 (33%)
3 27 (11%) D 35 (17%)

What does securing a grade 4 pass in the new GCSE tell us about a student’s mathematical capabilities? What does a student know, understand and apply in mathematics if he or she has been assigned a grade 4 pass in the EDEXCEL mathematics GCSE in 2017? Well, a grade 4 student will have been awarded an average of 14 marks out of the 80 marks available on each of the three examination papers. He or she will have got 83% of each examination paper wrong. A strong pass student assigned a grade 5 will have been awarded an average of 23 marks out of the 80 marks available on each paper and got 72% of the paper wrong. Standards do not seem to have risen. Can a grade 8 mathematics GCSE student solve simultaneous equations comfortably but find exponential curves difficult? I am not sure we know what the grades mean as labels for attainment quite yet. What does it mean for potential A level students?  Should a grade 6 student, who failed 60% of the questions on the GCSE, follow an A level mathematics course, a course which has also been made academically more challenging?

It’s all down to Michael…The decision by Michael Gove to change everything at once was rooted in the thinking of Schmidt and Prawat, cited by Tim Oates in his paper, Could Do Better. In the seeming incoherence was buried a desire for coherence to be achieved through changing everything at once in some kind of blitzkrieg approach to curriculum reform. What that has meant is that several cohorts of students have been chronically unprepared for the more academically challenging examinations.

Standards have been maintained?! When Tim Leunig casually remarked that only one or two pupils will get straight top grades in the new GCSEs, he was, at that moment in time, telling the truth. In the end it was over 2,000 pupils who gained 999, three of whom were from Huntington alone. To have retained the grade boundaries in mathematics GCSE from 2016 to 2017 would have been disastrous for the 2017ers, one of whom was my son. Imagine the wrath of tens of thousands of parents whose children would have seemed to have failed miserably, parents who are also voters.

Don’t panic. As all GCSE subjects move to the 9-1 scale, all we can do is teach brilliantly and prepare students for the new examinations as well as we possibly can. Forget worrying about things you cannot control and just teach. The statisticians will sort out who gets which grade.

It’s the “Saw Tooth Effect”, stupid! As OFQUAL explore in their Saw Tooth Effect paper, it takes several years for teachers and students to become familiar with post-reform examination specifications before we can judge whether our students are actually being educated more effectively and are, consequently, attaining higher educational standards. In the meantime they will have to continue to massage the grade boundaries.

Let’s base what we do in schools on what we know works. If you would like to know more about Research Schools and want to hear some influential speakers discuss how evidence-informed approaches can aid school improvement, then why not attend the forthcoming Evidence In Education: Northern Networks Making It Work conference at the University of York. You can find more details and book a place here.




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This much I know about…the importance of teaching students the skills to broaden their vocabulary

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about the importance of teaching students the skills to broaden their vocabulary.

Words matter more than ever. How can you meet the academic challenge of the new GCSEs and A levels if you do not have the vocabulary to understand the content? At Huntington we are obsessing with helping students broaden their vocabulary. How to unpick the possible meaning of a word can be taught to students. Yesterday I was teaching the Human Development Index and using this slide from the Tutor2U website:

Model the process. We are much more alert to the gaps in our students’ vocabularies than we have ever been before thanks to the training we are receiving from our in-house expert Marcus Jones. Discussing point 2 on the slide, I asked one of my students what “inequitable” meant and she replied, without thinking, that she did not know. I covered up the “in” and the “itable” and asked her where she usually found “equ” in the language. She was still confused. I asked her to write down “equ” and, as she wrote it down, to see what letters she would naturally write next; she began writing and automatically wrote “equ-a-l”. “Aaah” she exclaimed, “equal”.

“So, if something is inequitable what do you think it means?”

“That it’s not equal, maybe that it’s not fair”, she concluded.

What I had done in that micro-moment of pedagogy is lead the student through the process of unearthing a word’s meaning, a process she will need to become expert at if she is going to broaden her vocabulary and be successful in her A level Economics examinations next summer.

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This much I know about…overcoming my prejudices to the benefit of my students

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about overcoming my prejudices to the benefit of my students

Multiple choice questions have always been abhorrent to me. My prejudice against MCQs is both instinctual and ideological, I think. I have forever associated MCQs with a functional approach to education. What use would a liberal like me ever have for the A, B, C or D approach to teaching and learning?

The root of my prejudice is, like all prejudices, ignorance. The most influential book I have read this year has been Daisy Christodoulou’s Making Good Progress. It clarified the complexities of assessment for me. After reading Daisy’s book I felt slightly ashamed that it had taken nearly three decades of teaching before I understood how assessment undergirds the teaching and learning process. I recommended the book to our curriculum lead and he has been working with subject leaders over the past few months as we implement Daisy’s key recommendations; one of our central development strands this year is to ensure the coherence of assessment, curriculum and pedagogy.

I like listening to experts. Despite the expertise we have on our staff, we decided to invite Daisy in to speak to colleagues at the beginning of term. During her presentation she convinced me of the efficacy of MCQs. Teaching the new Economics A level specification has presented me with the challenge of ensuring students have learnt more complex, deeper content. Daisy illustrated how MCQs can help me formatively assess my students’ knowledge base as we build towards answering a summative end of topic examination question. Three weeks into term I set my first MCQ test:

The results have been hugely useful. I have been able to assess which elements of what I have taught have not been learnt securely by the students. Before half term, we need to return to the market for loanable funds and quantity theory because 80% of the students failed to answer those MCQs correctly. One student said she had “enjoyed” the MCQ test and found it “really useful”. This form of formative assessment is both accurate and time-efficient.

Writing effective MCQs is not easy. Good MCQs will test students’ knowledge and understanding of your subject; bad MCQs will test their powers of elimination. You have to make sure you include a few distractors, which are plausible but quite clearly wrong.

Every school needs someone who can help you access the evidence-base. Alex Quigley, our Director of Research School, sent me an email yesterday with me some extra reading on MCQs; there is some great advice here if you are already an MCQ writer or you fancy having a crack at writing some MCQs in the future:

A great brief guide can be found here.

‘A review of multiple choice item-writing for classroom assessment’ is available here.

A general guide for teachers on test writing, with a great section on MCQs can be accessed here.

Leading an evidence-informed national Research School means defeating your own prejudices. If you would like to know more about Research Schools and want to hear some influential speakers discuss how evidence-informed approaches can aid school improvement, then why not attend the forthcoming Evidence In Education: Northern Networks Making It Work conference at the University of York. You can find more details and book a place here.

Posted in School Leadership, Teaching and Learning | 1 Comment

This much I know about…why job satisfaction matters

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about why job satisfaction matters.

We had a visit from the DfE this week. They wanted to discuss workload. It was a challenging and, ultimately, uplifting experience. Richard and Sam from the DfE Delivery Unit were intelligent and reflective. They concluded that there is more than the hours worked metric to consider when thinking about teacher workload; just as important, they concluded, was school culture and, specifically, job satisfaction.

Job satisfaction grows from individuals finding their jobs purposeful and interesting, with those jobs undertaken in a culture of challenge and trust, and resulting in successful outcomes which are recognised. I want to consider one of those six factors in this post – how do you keep the job of teaching interesting?

It’s not just me who thinks keeping the job interesting is important. This week Andreas Schleicher, head of education at the OECD, claimed that we have to make teaching more “interesting” and more “intellectually attractive” if we are going to solve the recruitment crisis. At Huntington, since 2011, we have taught our students for fewer hours than the DfE recommendation of 25 contact hours and, instead, given our staff more time to work together to improve their practice. On occasion we have taken a couple more training days than we should have done. For the past six years our students’ examination results have improved steadily. Fewer contact hours with better trained teachers has resulted in consistently better student outcomes. Who would have thought, eh?

What’s your IQ? A feature of our mature, coherent model of Performance Development (we call it Development, not Management) and our related CPD programme is our Disciplined Inquiry objective. All teachers and Teaching Assistants – some 120+ colleagues – identify a feature of their practice which they would like to develop and then they evaluate that development of their practice against its impact upon their students’ performance. They are expertly trained in the whole process by colleagues from our Research School who introduce colleagues to, amongst other things, Interventions, Treatment Groups, Control Groups and Effect Sizes. They have time to complete their Inquiry – we call it their Inquiry Question, or IQ for short – and at the end of the year they write it up on an A3 proforma. In July we held a bubbly-sponsored twilight session where all 120 IQ A3s were displayed and a half-a-dozen individuals talked to staff about what they had done and what they concluded from their disciplined inquiry.

The IQ Fest ended our academic year on a high. In the last few weeks we have been scrutinising our students’ examination results to try to discern whether our interventions had any impact. I began our first training day of the new year with a presentation to the whole staff on my IQ. It was related to an intervention where I taught a group of 11 students how to approach the writing questions in the new English Language GCSE; I taught them for five hours a fortnight from February instead of them attending MFL lessons. Details of the intervention can be found here, here and here. Ultimately, (and much to my colleagues’ amusement) my intense intervention probably had little impact on the students’ outcomes in the GCSE writing questions. We probably won’t intervene in the same way this year, considering the huge time commitment of the intervention in relation to its minimal impact.

The success is completing the IQ itself not whether the intervention worked. One of the best IQs has been in MFL where the whole department explored, in one form or another, the impact of short, regular translation practice upon students’ writing skills. It prompted the Subject Leader to contact the University of York Languages department who sent a link to a research paper called The Bottleneck of Additional Language Acquisition. The department’s collective IQ has led them to scale-up the successful intervention this forthcoming year.

Teacher learning and job satisfaction. I met with the Subject Leader of MFL this week and, without betraying confidences, she told me that she loves what she is doing at Huntington because it is “intellectually interesting”.  By creating a school which uses an evidence-informed approach – where research findings complement what we already know from experience – we have done two inextricably linked things: improved our students’ outcomes and increased job satisfaction. When Sam and Richard from the DfE left Huntington, they were pondering how they might bottle-up the culture at our school and replicate it across the country. It has taken a decade to grow a school where trust is deep and genuine, where love has overcome fear.

The Research School Network is thriving. If you would like to know more about Research Schools and want to hear some influential speakers discuss how evidence-informed approaches can aid school improvement, then why not attend the forthcoming Evidence In Education: Northern Networks Making It Work conference at the University of York. You can find more details and book a place here.




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This much I know about…why, more surely than ever, I think it is essential for school leaders to teach

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about why, more surely than ever, I think it is essential for school leaders to teach.

What a difference a year makes! I’m back teaching Economics A Level after a year spent teaching General Studies and English instead. I had the whole of this summer to prep for the Economics teaching but I had other stuff to do and I needed a break. I knew it was a reformed A level but I calculated that it couldn’t really be THAT different – Economics is Economics, I reasoned. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Oh my goodness! The increase in both the volume and depth of content is remarkable. This tiny comparison between the old OCR-endorsed Economics A Level text book and the new one exemplifies the ramping up of the academic challenge for our students. In the old text book, the mathematical explanation of the Harrod-Domar model of savings and investment ends with an explicit message to students that they don’t really need to know, use or master the mathematics at all:

In the new OCR A level Economics specification the mathematics matters, a lot. In the new text book there are pages and pages referring to the Harrod-Domar model and a worked mathematical example, because the students may well have to execute these calculations in the final examination:

Different, eh? And every topic I taught on the old specification has been transformed like this on the new one. I have found the shock seismic.

So, whilst as head teacher I had heard colleagues discussing the more challenging GCSEs and A levels and whilst I had taught some (cherry-picked by me) elements of the new English Language GCSE, I had no genuine understanding of the challenge my colleagues have grappled with these past two years or more. We had allocated as much time as we could to planning for the new specifications, but it was, clearly, nowhere near enough. Hours of their own time has been spent in preparation for teaching the new GCSEs and A Levels. And I can only, retrospectively and with a huge dose of humility, tip my hat to my brilliant colleagues for doing such a tremendous job in both prepping so well and helping our students secure some excellent results in this summer’s examinations.

More surely than ever, I think it is essential for school leaders to teach. Teaching school leaders can only, genuinely, understand the challenges of the classroom teacher if they teach themselves.

BTW, instead of attending researchED 2017 today, I am planning my Economics lessons for the rest of this half-term…

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This much I know about…the folly of valuing effort over outcomes

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about the folly of valuing effort over outcomes.

What do we value most in teachers, effort or outcomes? I might be enveloped in a full-blown mid-life crisis, but I cannot see the point any more in doing anything at work which is not having a direct and weighty impact upon students’ learning. Listening to a Huntington School alumni, one Oliver Burkeman, on Radio 4 this week, I was reminded of Jo Facer’s brilliant blog on effective feedback and how, at Michaela School, there is a culture of doing what has most impact, not what the rest of the educational world expects. Consequently, Jo largely gave up marking and gives whole class feedback instead; her students learn more and she has her workload lightened.

In his new series, Burkeman is exploring how we have come to fetishise busyness. It is an enlightening listen. In preparation for our first day of the autumn term, I have prepared this short audio extract to play to my colleagues.

On Monday in my briefing to staff, I will exhort my colleagues to do what works. If they want to adopt whole class marking as policy, then do it – just rewrite the departmental marking policy accordingly. If they find a new way of working which improves outcomes, just crack on! I don’t mind if they go home early if they have the last period of the day free – I just want them to work as effectively as possible. Accountability is about outcomes, not how hard you work.

Don’t feel guilty if your workload eases, just make sure that the evidence says that what you are doing improves students’ learning – then we will all be happy…

Posted in School Leadership, Teaching and Learning | 6 Comments

This much I know about…a eulogy for my sister on her 60th birthday

Beverley Ann Refoy, 23 August 1957 – 5 July 2017

“Bev” was the first word I ever said. Bev was six when I was born and I must have been an absolute gift to my big sister. Imagine it. A dolly to play with that had real tears and real nappies; a dolly she could feed with a real baby’s bottle.

Bev was the pioneer for the five of us. She worked hard and was bright.

For me she was so important, because she was the first one to have a stab at taking A levels. I can remember the pain-staking attention to detail of her project on the Abolition of Slavery. I can still see the drawing on the project’s front cover in my mind’s eye.

And off the back of her education she was one of the youngest trainee managers at Tesco’s. She was certainly one of the very few female trainee managers in the late 1970s. For me and the rest of us in the family, she was the first one who thought there might be something more to life beyond our council house on School Hill.

We were always so very proud of her.

When Bev left primary school she was awarded the The Maresfield Bonner’s Bible for industry and diligence. Back in 2013 she made the bible a gift to Chloe, her god daughter. She loved all children, but especially her nephews and nieces. It’s no surprise the NSPCC is her chosen charity. When Chloe secured a new job Bev wrote this on her Facebook page in tribute: “I am so proud of my god daughter, Chloe West. She is to start her new primary school teaching post in September. Lucky children of Buxted. Chloe, I am sending lots of love and hugs, you little minx! By the way, I must apologise to our neighbours for our musical celebrations!” Bev certainly liked her music loud…

In this Bible, she cites the maxim, “Diligence is the mother of good luck”. She never shied away from hard work. She was gutsy. As she was dying, she began writing an account of her life. It captures her kindness and her work ethic. If Bev was anything, she was diligent. At her best she was profoundly kind. She wrote:

“Everything I have worked for I did with pleasure – there is no better feeling than knowing how hard you have worked. The feeling of achievement and to be proud to have that feeling is really good. Self-motivation and high self-esteem spur you on to the next stage of your life. I have enjoyed my life and I am surprised how quickly it has passed – my working enabled me to meet many different people, some of whom I am still in contact with. I have played many roles from management to cleaning old ladies’ bottoms – I found working in an old people’s home the most rewarding – (and I think this final line says a lot about Bev, about someone who struggled, really struggled, at certain times in her life) everyone will be old one day and need someone to simply give them a smile and treat them with respect regardless of their situation… someone to simply give them a smile and treat them with respect regardless of their situation…”

But there her account of her life stopped. It was cut short. Not everyone gets to be old Bevvy.

Bev really loved our dad. When I was writing about dad a couple of years ago, she wrote to me about him and I just want to read to you what she wrote, because, somehow, it is hard today to talk about Bev without talking about our dad. This is what Bev wrote:

“Dad was always there for each of us as we grew up. He took Dave and me for long walks in the country and knew everything about nature. He helped me with my stoolball, helped me ice and decorate my Christmas cake, and even tried to teach me how to hit a golf ball!

“Luckily for all of us his job did not interfere with home life. Once he clocked off he’d finished until the alarm went off the next morning. He was able to enjoy his post round out in the countryside, and was a valuable member of that community. He helped feed the lambs at the farm, took an old lady flowers and eggs, posted her letters and was the only human contact that she had.

“Every March he would pick the first primroses of the year and send them to Auntie Nancy. He was out in the fresh air every day, observing all four seasons, not confined to four brick walls like the majority of us are.

“I see dad in his own way as a teacher. He was not well-educated – through no fault of his own – but he taught us right from wrong. He showed us how to respect the countryside, kindness, honesty, stoicism, love and gratitude. Above all he was able to give each of us his time, a gift more precious than status or money. He was a very wise man.”

On one of the occasions I came down to Weymouth to see her recently, she gave me this, a small shield that she was awarded for taking six catches in a game of stoolball.  She had played for the women’s team when she was only 14. Stoolball’s a traditional Sussex game played by women, which is a bit like cricket, with the same positions for fielding. The shield is in perfect condition and she treasured it for well over 40 years. As she lay there in great discomfort unable to move on her hospital bed, she told me about how she won it, how our dad had come to collect her at the end of the game and how Rose Groves, the team captain, had said to dad, “here she is Harry, Miss Sticky Fingers”. The joy in her voice was as fresh as it was on that evening, all those years ago, when she was a winner.

On the way back to York on the train that evening, I wrote a sonnet for Bev and her stoolballing exploits.



And that’s how I will choose to remember Bev. I will look at this shield and imagine her, deep in the Sussex countryside, running around the stoolball pitch, taking catches in the late evening’s summer sunshine, her face lighting up as she shows our dad her trophy. A smiling free spirit, with everything to live for, and not a care in the world.

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