How a HoD should react to poor GCSE results

Now the dust has settled on GCSE results, here’s how to tackle disappointing department outcomes, says Peter Mattock

How should heads of department react to poor GCSE results?

Over the past few weeks, many heads of maths will have been living with the aftermath of the GCSE and/or A-level results their pupils have received.

For some, this will have been a source of celebration, with kids achieving their potential and classes'/department's figures looking good. For others, however, this will have been a cause of stress and depression. 


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Lower than anticipated progress, poor performance of a key group of pupils or simply not living up to the expectations of your SLT can all leave heads of department worrying about what the year ahead will bring. 

If you are in this boat, try not to despair. 

There are things you can do to make sure you are on the front foot when it comes to dealing with the year to come:

Poor GCSE results: get your stories straight

If you have identified that there was underperformance overall, or underperformance in a particular area, can you see why this was the case? Was it a group of pupils with very low attendance? Were all the pupils in the same class? Is it a class that has suffered with intermittent staffing or other issues? 

Every result has a story behind it. The more you know of the story, the easier it is to talk intelligently about it, which will give your SLT and any other external scrutineers confidence that you are on top of the situation.

Remember it’s a new teaching year

Yes, a group of pupils (or a subset of them) may have underperformed, but that doesn’t mean that the new year groups will. Before you go planning all sorts of changes and interventions, make sure you take the time to compare the new year to the old. It may be that some of the issues you have identified are simply not present in the new year groups coming through. 

Each cohort of pupils is different, and it is worth taking the time to appreciate the differences before you start doing anything drastic. Look back at unit assessments, mock exams, reports data or whatever you have so that you can see how your cohorts compare. Any changes you make shouldn’t only address the issues from the past but have an impact on the future.

Be ready to make the tough decisions

If there are things that you can see need to be different, be prepared to make the tough decisions necessary to make those changes – if it means changing teachers from some classes to others, changing a certain approach or strategy or even if it means doubling down on something that hasn’t paid off yet. 

Having a clear plan that you can justify is essential in making sure that it is you, and not anyone else, who drives the agenda for the next year.

Show humility

However confident you are in your analysis and proposed actions, it is unwise to sound overconfident. By all means be assertive about what you believe, but also be prepared to really listen. Remember, your senior leadership also want the best for the kids in your school, and have valid experience that they can offer to support you. 

I know that in some schools their advice/actions are misguided, and this can lead to a lot of extra stress and workload for you and your team, but the way to tackle this is rarely by being stubborn, particularly when you are coming off the back of a hit. If possible, a good way to tackle this is to turn anything they want to your own advantage. For example, if your SLT decide that they are going to push knowledge organisers, can you make them complement something you are going to put in place anyway? If not, can you get them to allow something like a Frayer model instead? 

If your SLT want weekly assessment, can you use something like diagnostic questions which are quick and straightforward to implement, and might actually tell you something useful? If it is really impossible to turn whatever it is to your advantage, can you reach a compromise rather than finding yourselves at loggerheads?

Peter Mattock is head of maths at an 11-16 school in Leicestershire and author of Visible Maths

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