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Four lessons learned from GCSE reforms

A maths teacher shares the lessons he learned from the latest GCSE reforms in his subject to support teachers of other subjects as they also manage exam change

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A maths teacher shares the lessons he learned from the latest GCSE reforms in his subject to support teachers of other subjects as they also manage exam change

The phrase "The only constant is change" never fails to prove itself. Many of us will recall the constant changes and moving goal posts over the last five years in GCSE, and it doesn’t look like the pace is set to slow any time soon.

However, as we weather these changes, we are constantly learning. As a maths teacher, there are a few lessons that I think we can take from the most recent reforms to GCSEs in maths that can be applied to those subjects that are about to undergo the same reforms – changing the grading structure from G-A* to 1-9; increased breadth and depth of the syllabus; a new exam paper structure and harder questions.

When I first received details of these changes, it was a huge shock. The grading structure in particular was a monumental change, and there was very little support around managing the change and getting all stakeholders (teachers, parents, employers, pupils) to understand what was happening.

Looking back, I would do the following things differently. Perhaps teachers of other subjects can take something away here.

1. Share and re-share the grading structure

I still get parents asking how the grades 1-9 relates to the old A*-G grades. There also seems to be a misconception that A* = 1. Remember that this is not the fault of parents but is down to a lack of change management. To help with this, Ofqual have produced a mapping table, which is likely to get further refined.

Use every opportunity to relay the above structure to students and parents. Email, parents’ evenings, handing out slips, end-of-terms reports – you simply cannot reiterate the message often enough.

2. Reassure that students will not be disadvantaged

Last year, I was constantly asked two questions by students and parents: What do I need to pass? How can my child get an A*, sorry I mean a 9?

Much of this detailed information was not available at the time. The trick here is to reassure students and parents that there will not be any dramatic changes from one year to the next. The maths GCSE was undoubtedly harder than in previous years, but the grade boundaries did allow for this difficulty.

In June 2016, 64 per cent of students passed the Edexcel maths GCSE whereas 70 per cent passed the reformed exam. This implies that the reformed year was not disadvantaged – if anything perhaps they gained an advantage, as 6 per cent more students passed. The point to stress to students and parents is that candidates will not be disadvantaged.

3. Appoint a syllabus change champion

It is very easy for me to tell you to read the new syllabus, but we all know that syllabi are vague in nature. The exam boards will issue statements of work, lesson plans, textbooks, specimen papers and so on. These are all essential to help you get to know the new content. The boards will also prepare a highlighted text showing the key changes in syllabi. The issue here is that the information is all over the place.

The best way to tackle this is to allocate one person per subject to obtain relevant information. This will avoid everyone being overloaded with excessive and duplicate information. Hold discussion groups with subject teachers within the school and perhaps wider network groups to share understanding of what has changed.

4. Don’t fall back on old resources

In maths, we changed from having two papers to three papers, lost the formulae table and added an hour to the total examination time. While the students did not notice a change, as they did not know the old system, we needed to prepare them for their exams using new style mocks and exercises. This meant harder questions and longer papers.

Again, this may seem obvious, but it is easy to fall into the trap of using resources from the previous year. However, there is plenty of new material available from the exam boards and all opportunity should be taken to use it to make sure that your teaching matches the new specifications as closely as possible.

Naran Gorsia is an independent maths teacher working at Regent/Albany colleges.

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