GCSEs 2021: A guide to adapting your planning

The announcement that GCSE exams will go ahead in 2021 was a relief to Laura May Rowlands. Here's how she's adapting her teaching
13th October 2020, 3:00pm


GCSEs 2021: A guide to adapting your planning


As the autumn term starts to bite and the mornings are getting darker, it may feel as though there is little to be grateful for. Yet the announcement yesterday by Gavin Williamson that GCSE exams will be going ahead in the summer of 2021, has caused some of us (myself included) to heave a sigh of relief.

Let me be clear: this is not just because we know that properly-administered exams, marked and moderated by knowledgeable experts, are the best way to demonstrate learning.

It's because of the thought, which had reared its ugly head in recent weeks, of having to implement, at short notice, a return to the bad old days of coursework. Those days of endless cajoling, of redrafts and hours wasted on paperwork, not to mention the sneaking worry that some of the work was not entirely original.

And it's because of the thought of facing a return to the agonising burden of last summer, in which thousands of teachers were charged with making judgments that would influence the life journeys of their students, after months of uncertainty. It's because so many young people were put through this torrid time of doubt in terms of their next steps in work, education, or training and the worry that this could happen again to a new cohort. Aren't our young people worth more than that?

How to prepare for GCSEs 2021

Admittedly, we need further information and guidance on the support that will be provided to those pupils who have (through no fault of their own) been forced to miss valuable learning time because of the pandemic.

There are ways around this - with careful thought, no pupil should be denied the right to show what they have learned, whether this is a change in the amount of material studied, contingent papers for those who must sit the exam at a later date, or even modular exams to be taken at different points later in the year.

So now that we know the exams are definitely happening, how do we best prepare?

1. Fewer topics, deeper concepts

Almost all subjects are seeing an increase of three weeks in their teaching time, which, taken in combination with the fact that some subjects are seeing a reduction in the material that must be studied, creates opportunities to teach fewer topics on a deeper level. While not ideal - what is in these times? - this means there is a golden opportunity to focus in on the things you know need more time spent on them, without rushing to cover the next topic.

2.  Strip out the extraneous

OK, so you've taken out all the topics you aren't going to revisit. But are your lessons streamlined to ensure that every minute is packed with the rich and deep learning you know your pupils need? This is where you may need to look again at the substance of your lessons. What can you provide to your pupils that will mean they can focus in on the nitty-gritty of how to get the top marks in each question? Rather than waffling about trying to elicit an answer, what can you just tell them? Make it crisp and explicit, and then show them how to get there on their own.

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3. Co-plan for parity of provision

A shared approach is vital across classes. Ensuring that every teacher is using the same language, the same structures, and referring to the same ideas means all pupils get access to the material they need. Knowledge organisers should be common across all classes. Equally, you need to show high-quality exemplar answers to all. Time spent in departments co-authoring these, or ensuring all have copies from recalled past papers, is time well-spent. Even better, collating all teaching materials into a booklet then allows for time to be spent in lessons forensically looking at how the exemplars attained the marks they did in order to replicate them. A booklet allows for annotation, which can then be referred back to.

4. Retrieval, retrieval, retrieval

Students need to be tested on previously learned material in every lesson. No excuses. If material isn't revisited at spaced intervals, the knowledge will be lost. A brief quiz in each lesson is a good start, but the use of blank knowledge organisers as a retrieval activity is even more powerful. When gaps are filled in with a different coloured pen, this also doubles up as the perfect proof of what needs to be revised. 

Laura May Rowlands is head of faculty for English and literacy at Woodlands Community College in Southampton

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