Making good even better

13th January 2006 at 00:00
Getting three GCSEs in an already strong subject was a major draw for Christina Stewardson when the decision was made to join the Edexcel pilot

What initially attracted Cardinal Wiseman Catholic Technology College in Birmingham to the Edexcel GCSE pilot was the possibility of our pupils gaining three GCSEs in a subject that achieves some of the best GCSE results in our school. Last year 56 per cent of our pupils gained C or above in English and 59 per cent in literature. We wanted to capitalise on that success and help our pupils achieve even more.

On further investigation, it became evident that this course was fundamentally different from the English GCSEs on offer up to this point.

Basically, there are seven distinct units, each equal to half a GCSE. Unit one, "communication", is the core unit and therefore compulsory. Speaking and listening, and reading and writing are assessed in this unit with a body of pre-released material being studied for examination. Teachers then select other units to study and depending on the combination covered pupils are awarded English, English Studies or English Literature as either single or double awards.

Some of the units are fairly traditional in content - for example, unit 7: English literature (extended studies) assessed on three pieces of written coursework: pre-1914 drama; pre-1914 prose and pre and post-1914 poetry.

However, others - like unit 4: the moving image - are new departures, requiring pupils to study a variety of moving image texts and then produce their own three-minute "film".

The pattern of assessment is also different. All seven units will be available for examination in January and June of both Year 10 and 11.

Imitating the potential for re-sits seen in GNVQ and AS exams, pupils will be able to choose when to "cash-in" their results once they are sure they have achieved the best outcome possible. In our school, we are finding that this pattern keeps motivation high. There has been a sense of purpose and focus from day one in September; pupils know they are aiming for one, two or three GCSEs and are aware of the route they will take to achieve them.

Our school is situated in Kingstanding in Birmingham; almost 80 per cent of our pupils are in the highest index of multiple deprivations. We have approximately 670 on the roll and last year we achieved 31 per cent A-C grades at GCSE. We know that pupils do not reach their full potential; this is partly because of their attitude towards education - many are very passive learners who attend school because they must, tolerating what happens in the classroom; engaging them in their learning and encouraging them to value their education is part of the challenge.

The Edexcel course has made us look again at what suits our pupils, not just in one year group but as groups within that group. Some students will not study any of the three units that focus on literature. Others, especially our underachieving, most able pupils, will be challenged to work through six of the units. To address one major area of concern, the underperformance of able boys in particular, we have created single gender groups for the top sets.

Not everything about the new syllabus is new, but we are also introducing changes to our teaching. All of the English staff have been trained on the Teacher Effectiveness Enhancement Programme (TEEP), devised and developed at Cramlington High School in Newcastle. As we are writing the new schemes of work, we are "TEEPing" them, lesson by lesson, and this is radically changing the learning experiences of our pupils and the teaching experiences of teachers. Planning, delivering and reviewing together, unites us a team and is invigorating.

We have used Henry James's The Turn of the Screw as part of the previous syllabus and it forms part of the new unit 7: literature. However, as part of our TEEP work, this customary text is given a very different delivery. A typical lesson starts with preparing for learning; in groups pupils might look at a set of laminated pictures related to the governess and select one which they find most significant, then they justify their choice in one word - for example "powerful" or "feminine" or "dangerous" - and we take feedback from the whole class.

Most importantly, the pupils then set their own learning outcomes or success criteria, so we use the feedback about the pictures to agree on what evidence we are looking for about the governess. The new information they will need to cover this part of the syllabus is provided in the form of a PowerPoint presentation with a music soundtrack, showing pictures of Pre-Raphaelite images of women interspersed with text describing the Victorian view of women - this is the teacher's input into the lesson and is prepared by one of the English team for all of us to use.

At this point a mini challenge is set up: they have to identify what language features are found in a specific section of the novel and they have to prepare a set of notes to explain to the rest of the group what is learned about the governess in their section and how she is presented. Then they present their findings to each other. This works particularly well with the all-boy group. They are very good now at giving each other feedback on their presentations and, using their success criteria as terms of reference, will be very critical of any group who fails to produce notes that are good enough for them to base their essays on. This peer assessment keeps standards high and after half a term they are excellent judges of the quality of their own and each other's work.

We had a subject Ofsted in English last half-term and the inspector commented favourably on the fact that he observed no more than 10 minutes of teacher talk in any lesson, describing how the pupils worked autonomously through the process of their own learning, telling him how they would know if they were successful and keeping each other on task.

He went as far as to describe this as "radically different" to what he had seen elsewhere. With so much energy going into creating these lesson plans and resources, it was the boost we needed to keep us moving ahead.

He also highlighted the poor use of Standard English in our pupils' oral work, so we decided that students would study unit 3: spoken English, next.

We had originally shied away from a unit which is so focused on grammar, but the planning has gone well so far and we are keen to start delivery in January.

We have had to find funds to buy digital camcorders and other equipment. It would be foolish to underestimate the time, money and effort that has gone into the project so far, but we have been very well supported by our English consultant, Penny Manford.

It is not only the teachers who feel a sense of excitement about the new course and lessons. The pupils, too, rate them very highly. They like the fact that, in their own words: "We know what we are doing and where we are going." They appreciate that there are "no passengers" in the groups and that feedback helps them to improve. They speak of enjoying the noise in the classroom as work gets underway as opposed to the silence of previous lessons. The one thing they requested was that we had more "garage" music to accompany their group work.

It has taken many revisions to develop our new schemes of work. The benefits are the support and appreciation of the department team; the positive attitudes of the pupils; lessons that are so well prepared that our focus shifts from teaching to facilitating and monitoring and a belief that this course will produce even better GCSE results for our pupils.

* TEEPtraining information Edexcel:

Christina Stewardson is deputy headteacher at Cardinal Wiseman Catholic Technology College,Birmingham


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