‘I held my breath as my students sat their GCSE’

After the first exams of the new GCSE specification, this RE teacher knows where he will redouble his efforts in future

GCSE RE 2018

Religious education is always one of the very first GCSE examinations to take place at the beginning of the exam season, and, like teachers in all subjects, the RE community held its breath in the middle of May as the first cohort of pupils sat the various papers of the new specification.

Perhaps the one thing that sets RE apart from other subjects is that we had a delayed launch to our specification due to a legal challenge to the content, which resulted in even less time than usual to cover the significantly heavier and more challenging specification.

In over 20 years of teaching, I have often wondered whether we teachers get more nervous on exam day than our pupils. This was especially true this year, given that we were in such unchartered waters.

But did we need to be so worried, or are there reasons to be quietly confident?

Clearly, I can only write with authority on the specification that I use, but my hope is that I can speak for many teachers when I say there were no real surprises. The exams were consistent with the specimen papers on the website and true to all the training delivered by the board.

Redoubling efforts

Having had time to reflect, my initial frustration at the open-ended nature of some of the questions, especially the high-mark-awarding essay questions, has turned to a hope that this will actually have given pupils a chance to truly show what they understand.

As is usually the case, if pupils have listened to what they have been taught about exam technique as much as content, they should be ok in August. However, the extent to which these kinds of questions have disadvantaged lower-ability pupils remains to be seen.

With the next cohort, I shall redouble my efforts to cultivate an understanding of the keywords, as this proved crucial. Similarly, the exam showed that success hinges on pupils having a sound grasp of key religious teachings, so learning these will also be a focus.

Next year, there will be far fewer model answers to write. I have now already created a bank of ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ in terms of showcasing common errors and misunderstandings as well as best practice.

Have I already mentioned that this was the first time through? Sorry to go on, but it has been a stressful ordeal for many of us.

An 'Olympic' strategy for GCSE RE

One of the strategies I relied on this year seems to have prepared my candidates quite well and is worth sharing as a final thought here.

Based on research with Olympic gold medal-winning coaches about what they did differently with their athletes compared to others, an interesting thread emerges: deliberately creating an environment in training that was more difficult than the real thing.

Inspired by these findings, I had set out to create exam practice questions that were deliberately more difficult than anything pupils would encounter in the "Olympic final" of the exam hall by linking unconnected parts of the syllabus together and finding patterns that I hoped would reinforce understanding. Pupils would then complete these in class in less time than they would have on the day.

My initial feeling is that this was a worthwhile strategy and time well spent, especially in light of the aforementioned abstract and open-ended nature of some of the questions. Whether or not this approach actually made any difference to pupils’ results, causing them to achieve the ‘gold medal’ of meeting or exceeding their target grade, we shall find out in August.    

Christian Pountain is head of RE and director of spirituality at a secondary school in Lancashire.

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