Improving Outcomes for GCSE Resit Students

As a country we would like all our future employees to be functionally numerate and literate. If you then so, it is imperative that we need to start thinking more about supporting everyone in becoming functionally numerate and that starts with ensuring ALL students have access to high quality instruction and qualifications that enable them to be successful.

In addition, in May 2019 the Augar Review of Post-18 education funding was published and one of the recommendations was the requirement for students to have achieved at least a Grade 4 in English and Mathematics at GCSE in order to access Higher Education funding. The Government reply to this has recently been published and sets out a plan for introducing this requirement. I am not going to discuss this here, as I want to focus on how we can improve outcomes in mathematics for all students. Overall this now means that GCSE resit students in both English and Mathematics in Post-16 education have become even more important.

So what can Post-16 colleges do in order to increase the levels of success in GCSE English and Mathematics?

In 2020 the University of Nottingham published its findings from a 2-year investigation into the issues surrounding specifically Post-16 maths and improving outcomes for these students, (Maths in Further Education Colleges University of Nottingham, 2020).There were 4 interim reports that investigated discrete areas of policy and practice.

Interim 1 – Survey of Teachers of mathematics

Interim 2 – Policy and practice

Interim 3 – Survey of Students

Interim 4 – Student progress

The Final Report combined the 4 interim reports and created 20 recommendations for Post-16 Mathematics Education.

Previously, I have discussed the recommendations from the final report, now, I will try to breakdown one of the key interim reports; Interim Report 2 that aimed to support colleges in developing policies and practices across the whole establishment.

This report had more information regarding current policy and practice and came up with nine key findings from their investigation.

The first two recommendations of this report specifies how colleges should think about their local context and pathways that ensure equality of opportunity. Currently, the progress points system, lack of staff, poor employer awareness and the differing style of questioning in Functional Skills discourages colleges from fully investing in different pathways for students. This can only be done with effective cross-college leadership and institutional prioritisation of mathematics. This can be difficult, as many senior leaders, those with cross-college responsibility, have other priorities and their portfolio would become too large if maths was added. This means that maths will not be a priority across the whole college; why would vocational staff prioritise maths over their own subject?

Policy recommendation 1: Creation of a cross-college management role for Level 1/2 Maths

A typical college policy should include the development of a cross-college management role for Level 1/2 mathematics. Their responsibility should be for the coordination of the curriculum and organisation of Level 1/2 maths. If maths has its own tutors, then this role would include developing formal links with vocational subjects so that issues surrounding behaviour or attendance could be addressed a more timely way than relying on both maths and vocational tutors working independently. Alongside this, the manager would be responsible for liaising with local employers about their numeracy needs and developing appropriate pathways for both students and within the local context.

Policy recommendation 2: Prioritising the timetabling of Level 1/2 maths

Typical resit students have had a poor experience of maths throughout school and as such can find it very difficult to attend maths classes. The timetabling of these sessions need to be carefully planned and should be a priority when creating timetables. Ideally, sessions should be sandwiched between other subjects, so that it becomes ‘trapped’ time and if needed to be at the beginning or end of a day, it should be no more than 1 hour and be as close to other subject as possible. There should not be any maths sessions, where they are the only session in the day or where they are much earlier or later than other subjects.

Policy recommendation 3: Development of vocational tutors’ mathematical skills.

A recently as February 2022, a report on the state of maths anxiety, found the UK had the highest level of maths anxiety in the world, (Disentangling the individual and contextual effects of math anxiety: A global perspective; Hawes, Tremblay & Ansari). This included teaching professionals who were not maths specialists. This current situation does not help improving outcomes for students, when many of their tutors have their own anxieties with the subject. With this in mind, colleges should be supporting tutors with their own mathematical development by providing high quality opportunities and training. This in turn has a benefit of providing another potential maths tutor or even, in colleges which have discrete maths provision, a maths advocate; someone within a vocational section that could support students with maths, a friendly face so to speak. This person could also be part of the cross-college management structure for maths. My personal favourite for this is the use of Complete Maths TUTOR. This platform is powerful in that it creates a personalised programme for every person, that can be monitored remotely by the cross-college manager, meaning vocational tutors can do this in own time and not face the potential embarrassment of attending training sessions. At £52 per annum per person, it represents excellent value and could be part of a college’s professional development budget.

Policy recommendation 4: Effective CPD surrounding Level 1/2 maths for maths tutors

If Level 1/2 maths is to become a priority within a college, then those teaching it should be continuously developing their practice to ensure sesison are of high-quality. In colleges that have discrete maths, then in the main, subject knowledge is well developed, but in order to develop practices, their pedagogical understanding teaching this type of student should also be developed. The cross-college manager should programme specific dates for this training. Again, I think Complete Maths provide and excellent CPD platform, (CompleteMaths CPD) that could be used in a flipped learning style, where maths staff watch a video, discuss it at a meeting, like a book club, and then determine whether it should be part of the department practice.

A necessary requirement of any policy or practice is to be able to measures its success and those success measures need to be made clear to all investors, including governors or trustees and employers. Potential success measures should be focussed on improving the career outcomes of students, although in improving outcomes for students, the college achieves better outcomes for itself as well. Suggested measures that could be used follow below.

Progress points, (not Grade 4+) compared to previous years and national figures – this should be reported to students based upon current attainment (Termly mock assessment). A GCSE Grade 4 would still be the standard for most students, but a GCSE grade 1-3 is still a Level 1 pass, so everyone involved needs to understand that this is a success, but maybe having a Level 1 Functional Skills Qualification sounds better.

Attendance levels, percentage difference to overall attendance – this comparison means that students are highlighted for NOT attending maths, rather than NOT attending college.

These policies could represent a paradigm shift in policy for many colleges, so they would need to be brought in over a period, so that each development could be measured for value and provide time for evaluation, as well as focussing on each policy or practice to being completely embedded across the whole college.

As a maths teacher, I genuinely believe that we have a duty to enable ALL students to achieve and move onto gainful employment and this report has really highlighted the potential improvements that could be made in post-16 education in this area and maybe this could also be adapted to include English as well, supporting young adults in attaining a successful career, whilst providing employers with numerate and literate employees.


We Need to Talk about Numeracy!!!

The current English system of setting GCSE grades using comparable outcomes, (GCSE grade distribution is pegged to what cohorts of similar ability achieved in the past), means that roughly a third of 16-year-olds year in, year out do not achieve a Grade 4 pass in English and Mathematics. Those young people who fall below this bar pay a high price in terms of reduced prospects in progression to further and higher education and to careers.

Of this ‘forgotten third’, less than 20% (18% in 2018, 17% in 2019) of them will achieve a Grade 4 in mathematics by the end of compulsory education and we are all aware of the benefits to long term prospects if a GCSE Pass is achieved. Over the last ten years there has been different projects, programmes and policies aimed at improving outcomes and trying to give the best opportunity for achieving a GCSE Grade 4 Pass or equivalent before students leave compulsory education at age 18, yet levels of numeracy in the UK are still very low.

Firstly, let’s look at the recent history of reports and programmes and what they suggested.

Starting in 1999, with the Moser Report, it was found over a quarter of adults were not functionally numerate and the Report suggested that by 2010, 90% of all 19 year-olds should be numerate. Suggested solutions were to allow any adult without a GCSE or O-Level to access a fully funded basic numeracy course and to introduce a new curriculum and qualification that focused on practical numeracy skills. But it was only in 2006, that this new qualification (Functional Skills) was introduced. Just prior to this The Smith Report was published, (Inquiry into Post-14 education, 2014), which concluded that there was a large shortage of qualified mathematics teachers and poor quality CPD in both secondary and tertiary settings. While in 2011, the Wolf Report stated that only half of 16 year-olds gained both English and mathematics GCSE passes, while only 4% of those continuing with their studies post-16, achieved a Pass during this period. So in order to try and improve the numbers of students achieving GCSE passes the Government reformed the Condition of Funding in 2014, requiring any student entering further education without a Grade 4 or better in GCSE mathematics or English to continue their studies in the subject, until they achieved a Grade 4 pass.

The major outcome of this change was the huge increase in the numbers of students studying Level 2 mathematics that added extra pressure to an already stretched workforce, (Inquiry into Post-14 Education). In addition, there were no prescribed hours for the teaching; so many colleges opted to use vocational tutors to deliver mathematics sessions during vocational sessions to cover the lack of mathematics specialists. This resulted in a wide range of quantity and quality of teaching received by students and standards of numeracy did not improve. This was confirmed by three reviews between 2017 and 2018, (Sainsbury Review, Industrial Strategy and Smith Report). So, in 2018, the Government, launched a five-year programme called ‘Centres for Excellence in Mathematics’ (CfEM) with 21 centres around the country selected for extra funding of totalling approximately £30 million to design new and improved teaching approaches, develop quality teaching resources, build teachers’ skills and spread best practice across the country through mathematics networks.

The aim of the programme was to help increase the number of young people leaving compulsory education with the numeracy skills, to improve their employability, and engagement with further learning. The current offer can be seen here. Different centres were invited to lead on different programmes, ‘Mastery Teaching in Post-16’, ‘motivating learners’, ‘Contextualisation’ and ‘Use of technology & data’. For example, Greater Brighton Metropolitan College (GBMET), have focused on developing a mastery approach, while the Warwickshire Colleges group have been focusing on motivation and engagement. There have been some publications, but so far, there has been no definitive programmes that have been rolled out nationally.

In addition to this programme, the University of Nottingham and the Nuffield Foundation published findings from a 2-year study, ‘Mathematics in Further Education Colleges’, (MiFEC, October 2020), that focused on improving the outcomes in mathematics for post-16 students. The report came up with 20 recommendations that should be developed in order to improve outcomes.

So with all this work being carried out, how can colleges make the best student focused decisions and improve outcomes for students?

The first section of MiFEC, focused on the creation of effective pathways for students entering FE without a Grade 4+ and the decisions colleges should be thinking about to ensure that as many students as possible can leave compulsory education functional numerate (and literate).

The study found that, currently, most colleges use one of two strategies for determining the pathways for placement and progression of students, (see the table below).

Blanket GCSEAll students placed directly onto a GCSE mathematics course, regardless of prior grade.
Skills ImprovementOnly Grade 3 students placed on the GCSE course. All others study Functional Skills and progress to GCSE or FS Level 2 after passing FS Level 1, depending on the needs of the student.
Current mathematics GCSE strategies in Post-16 establishments

Since the change in the Condition of Funding, there has been a move by colleges to place students on the Functional Skills pathway but, due to the points allocation in the Government Performance Tables (see below), some colleges still prefer the GCSE pathway.

Points allocation for Level 2 Qualifications in Post-16 establishments

For many colleges the ‘stepping stone’ pathway can be difficult due to the differing demands of GCSE and Functional Skills, (such as the lack of algebra in Functional Skills). Sitting alongside this is the often referred quote that, ‘employers do not know about Functional Skills, or think it is an inferior qualification’. In 2015, a report from the ETF, (Making Maths and English work for all), found that nearly half of larger employers knew what Functional Skills were and their value, (around 90% of all employers found the qualification useful), so this is not the case.

As a result, college management teams should be working with the maths leadership to determine the best set of pathways for their student cohort, especially determining the core differences between GCSE and Functional Skills and, alongside this, work with local employers to determine their numeracy, (and literacy) demands. If local employers are aware of the differences between the qualifications, they can make better judgement of what qualifications are suitable for their employees.

A typical Functional Skills question will have far more extraneous cognitive load, (contextualisation) that will increase the effort needed to answer the question.

For a minute, let’s remind ourselves of the definition of mastery.

Mastering maths is the acquisition of a deep, long-term, secure and adaptable understanding of the subject

Thinking about a typical Functional Skills question, is this not just mastery of a mathematical skill?

Not only are unusual contexts a barrier to success, but also many students studying Functional Skills have low literacy skills, making the interpretation of questions more challenging, especially as many of these questions involve a higher reading age than equivalent GCSE questions. Obviously, those entering with a Grade 3 will still undertake the GCSE qualification, (as required by the condition of funding), but there should be the opportunity for any student to study the qualification they feel is appropriate to them and their prior attainment in both mathematics and literacy.

Recommendation 1: Colleges develop good quality advice and guidance for students, with regard to potential pathways for mathematics. This advice should include testimonials from employers, as well as precise descriptions of both GCSE and Functional Skills, (Recommendation 2 from MiFEC), to support employers in understanding the skills obtained from each qualification.

The success of this recommendation can be measured by the numbers of successful students, (using points progress measure currently used), as well as effective guidance, including to local employers, enabling both students and employers to make effective decisions about the type of qualification, (and improved numeracy), for future employment.

The CfEM projects include two distinct themes being investigated, Mastery and Contextualization, but surely, if true mastery is to be developed, then contextual problem solving is a key part of it. Currently, most maths teachers often create fabricated contexts in order to fulfill the problem solving aspect, which extend the extraneous cognitive load even further for many students.

Perhaps a solution is further integration between maths staff and vocational staff, as this would bring better contexts that have the right amount of extraneous cognitive load, enabling students to utilise their mathematical skills in problem solving that is relevant and known.

Recommendation 2: Mathematics departments and Vocational departments should be given CPD time to develop banks of contextual questions that have specific mathematical skills identified, so they can be used in mathematics classes, ‘Numeracy across the Curriculum’ for Colleges.

On the other hand, there is a requirement for all vocational courses to identify the mathematical skills within their courses. Identification of the key skills required is one thing, knowing how to teach it is another.

Recently a report into maths anxiety, (Disentangling the individual and contextual effects of math anxiety: A global perspective, 2021), showed that students’ perception of teacher confidence in mathematics is the strongest predictor of mathematical anxiety. Personal confidence in mathematics is a British cultural issue, (National Numeracy Research Review, 2020), and this is true within all levels of education in this country. One only has to walk around any educational setting to notice the anxiety from staff with regard to mathematical skill level, (how many times have you overheard a member of staff saying, ‘Maths is not my strong point’!!) and this explicit demonstration of mathematical anxiety can only be increasing anxiety of resit students. This high level of anxiety will pervade into lower student engagement and learning will not be effective. This will apply to any situation requiring mathematics skills, so it is vital that vocational tutors are confident in their own mathematical skills (beyond the level they are teaching).

In 2014, the UK government began the ‘Numeracy across the Curriculum’ programme, where schools had explicit training on developing cross-curricular links with mathematics. The focus of this programme was raising standards in numeracy by developing consistent practice and increased collaboration between departments. Again, the key missing part of the jigsaw is the explicit training of staff with their own mathematical skills; if you do not know correct vocabulary or supportive methods, then you will be anxious when asked to deliver this. A recent blog (Ten things your child’s maths teacher wants you to know), was published on CompleteMaths and was aimed at parental anxiety, but many of the points could be extended to vocational tutors as well.

Therefore, the increased collaboration should also lead to specific mathematical training for vocational tutors, who would improve their own personal mathematical confidence. This would mean students benefit from using appropriate contexts in problem solving in maths, but also receiving consistent teaching methods for mathematical skills.

Recommendation 3: ALL FE tutors should be entitled to high quality mathematics ‘refresher’ courses that will support the development of personal confidence, (MiFEC report, Recommendations, 9, 12 & 13 & RS General Mathematical Competencies  for T-Levels)

Alongside the focus on vocational tutor mathematical development, we must not forget the mathematics teachers themselves. We need to understand that the ‘C’ in CPD stands for continuous, so we should be regularly checking our own skills and our own teaching pedagogies to ensure we are supporting students learning in the most effective way. This means access to high quality training and support.

Recommendation 4: High quality training for mathematics teachers to develop mathematical pedagogies, as well as support with developing appropriate contexts for the backgrounds and vocational studies of students.

When investigating the number of hours allocated for Post-16 GCSE students, there is a lot of variation between colleges, but there is one thing they all have in common, there is not enough time to revisit the whole curriculum, (8 months, including holidays). Therefore it is vital that colleges use different methodologies for supporting all students. Currently, the CfEM centres are looking into online learning, as well as ideas such as flipped learning, (see here), but probably the most impactful method is the use of prerequisite assessments. For any effective, responsive teaching to take place, the teacher needs to know what the students’ knowledge base is, otherwise, they are ‘shooting in the dark’! Some CfEM centres are doing action research on these ideas and have written report about their findings. There were many positive findings from them, including improvement in student engagement and motivation, as they were getting regular successes, while sessions were more productive for learning.

Recommendation 5: Use of Online Learning Platforms for prerequisite assessment of learning needs and intervention sessions.

Many colleges already have high quality maths teaching, with high quality CPD, and many have a student focused qualification structure, underpinned by good understanding of the different specifications and the benefits for students. In addition, colleges are using online platforms so that students can access work remotely in their own time; this is especially useful, for many students who struggle to attend. It also means that personalised programmes of study are much easier to create, a key part of raising student engagement and attainment, but the proportion of students attaining a Level 2 pass is still low. Meanwhile across the every educational stage, numeracy across the curriculum programmes are being developed to try to make mathematics more relevant to students, yet still there are extremely high levels of student anxiety of mathematics and therefore low levels of engagement with the subject. Perhaps the biggest impact colleges could make is from improving personal mathematical confidence of vocational tutors as this could lead to a paradigm shift in attitudes for everyone involved, in turn, improving levels of numeracy for all students.

Schemes of Learning Updates

Key Stage 2:

  • White Rose Unit Assessments and Small Steps videos added
  • Diagnostic Questions, (both for prerequisite assessment and for AfL in lesson)
  • Median, Variation Theory, NRICH and Corbett Primary resources indexed to small steps.

Key Stage 3: Nothing to add at the moment

Key Stage 4: Nothing to add at the moment.

A-Level: Nothing to add at the moment.

Core Maths: Nothing to add at the moment.

Discovery learning v Direct instruction (it is not a binary argument)

The argument between these two styles of teaching has been raging on #Edutwitter for the last few years and it has become very divisive over whether you are a ‘Discoverist’ or an ‘Instructionist’.

Well, let’s just think about our own experiences of learning for a while. If I was to attempt an A-Level Mathematics problem, I could answer it, fairly quickly, as I have the knowledge and skills needed to answer the question, whereas, if I was asked to deliberate on the political issues surrounding Hong Kong, I would struggle more, as I do not have the knowledge and skills in this area. I do though have enough knowledge to begin to understand the different issues on a superficial level and can begin to make connections and create some understanding of the issues. Now, if I think of some PhD work on virology, (sorry got to bring the pandemic in somewhere!), I would be totally lost about how viruses work and the chemistry involved.

These three scenarios, hopefully, give an insight into how we learn. In order to create connections between different concepts we need to have a good enough understanding of them in the first place. If we have no idea of the concepts, then we cannot begin to make connections and cannot begin to solve the problem. At the other end, if we have mastered a concept, then we can use that to support our development of further skills and concepts.

These have often been distilled down into 4 groups: –

  • Unconscious Incompetenceyou don’t know about the concept and therefore have no idea how to use it; think about a newborn baby and feeding.
  • Conscious Incompetenceyou know about the concept, but have not practiced it enough to be skilled in it; now think about the baby who has watched a parent feeding and tries to imitate them, they understand the concept, but do not have the motor skill to do it consistently.
  • Conscious Competenceyou have practiced the concept, but it still takes a lot of thinking to complete it consistently; this is now the baby, who can feed themselves most of the time, but still needs to be cleaned afterwards.
  • Unconscious Competenceyou have completely mastered the skill and could be thought of as an ‘automatic’ process; adults when they eat, although Mrs H, would beg to differ!

Using this in an education environment, we can immediately see that, in order to develop our understanding, we need to be exposed to the concept first and then practice it until it becomes mastered. And here we have this conjunction between discovery learning and direct instruction. Both are essential for learning, it is how they work together that is the key.

Returning to our four groups, Direct instruction is key to the first two groups; introduction to a new concept and ‘copying’ an expert as without these parts, we do not even know the concept exists and how it works. Only by exposure and imitation can we begin to internalise them. At this point, we have not yet ‘mastered’ the concept, just become skilled at using it. It is only when connections to other known skills are developed that mastery of the concept can happen. This is the time for discovery learning, using one’s own knowledge to solve problems and this is a vital part of the learning process. If we continue to just practice using the process, then we get better at using them, but we cannot appreciate, where it sits in our own constructed understanding and begin to master the concept and without mastery of the concept, you struggle to keep developing your own understanding. Just look at the interconnectedness of school age mathematics to begin to understand how, without mastery of a concept, everything weakens and begins to fall.

Schemes of Learning

There are many Schemes of Learning that are free to use and claim to be a Mastery Scheme of Learning.

True mastery learning is almost impossible in most school environments as the groupings need to be as homogeneous as possible, which is not how we run education in this country. Often, there are additional demands of having to follow a ‘timeline’, meaning that teachers feel they have to ‘move on’ before true understanding has developed. If you want to understand more about mastery learning, I suggest you read Mark McCourt’s (@emathsUK) book ‘Teaching for Mastery’ (978-1912906185).

I have worked at a school that subscribed to CompleteMathematics and have to say, that once you get your head around the platform, it is the best way of quickly understanding where a class is with their learning. It is really worth booking one of their free demos. The platform is just amazing for planning effective mastery lessons as it does not follow a prescribed timeline of objectives, rather allows you to plan for progress of the class at the pace they need, (further details on maths age can be found here or another about mathematical maturation here)

Firstly, you need to have a look at this YouTube video, explaining how, as we know, mathematics is a series of interconnected skills, and we need to master the prerequisite skills before we can develop onto the new skills.

The CompleteMathematics platform uses the concept of prerequisites for planning, so when planning you can determine the skills needed in order to be able to access the new skill and also where it builds to.

Here is a video demonstration of the platform or you can read an excellent post about it by Chris McGrane here

The platform is £950+VAT per annum, which in my opinion is worth it, especially when schools are buying sets of textbooks every year.

ARK Curriculum+ have a scheme for both Primary (Primary Mathematics Mastery) and Secondary (Secondary Mathematics Mastery). I have not had the opportunity to use either platform, apart from being shown resources by my wife, (her school Trust subscribed to the Primary Platform), so I cannot comment on the quality, but from what Mrs H has said, the plans are very well organised and structured even for a non-specialist mathematics teacher; although training on how to use them would have helped her far better. The AfL ‘supertool’ that is Diagnostic Questions by Craig Barton which has both a Primary and Secondary set of questions, that can be used for either, prerequisite assessment or post topic and the retrieval testing. Obviously, both can be set up in the Eedi platform so that all the work of creating a calendar is done for you.

White Rose Maths is a lot cheaper at £120 per annum and they have developed a scheme around a similar principle of small steps. This means teachers can begin learning the new skills for their class, once they have assessed the prerequisite skills and do not have to follow a ‘prescribed’ weekly plan. Prerequisite assessment can be done easily by using Diagnostic Questions which has a White Rose Collection. This enables the teacher to have a sets of prerequisite questions as well as sets of AfL questions available for each topic and this is also able to be set up in Eedi.

Further details of the White Rose scheme of learning can be found on this page.

Exit Tickets. Fad or Fantastic?

Exit tickets have become a buzz word in education recently, but are they useful and are we using them correctly?

Are they useful?

Assessment for Learning is all about us, as teachers, knowing what students have learnt and understood so we can move on to the next idea, without fear that some students will not be able to grasp it. This immediate feedback loop is vital if we are to support students correctly and therefore, should happen constantly within the classroom setting and not just be at the end of a lesson or end of a topic. Exit Tickets are just one method of AfL, in particular, whether the class did not get the objective of the lesson and this will inform the class teacher to rethink the lesson and maybe return to the objective in another way to improve understanding. Harry Fletcher-Wood describes this brilliantly in his blog ‘Using exit tickets to assess and plan‘, where he explains how they should be used as to check the learning of the desired objective. The one thing they should not be used for is checking whether students understood the objective. At the end of a lesson any students demonstrating that they can remember what went on during the last hour is doing just that remembering the last hour, all the recall is has context and recency.

So how should we be using them?

Jo Morgan’s presentation on AfL, neatly sums up the process that the teacher should take when using exit tickets, in that they should only be used to inform the planning for the next lesson. They should not be used as evidence of learning for a later stage. Like all AfL, the feedback is for the teacher, not necessarily the students.

My personal favourite for simple exit tickets are Craig Barton’s Diagnostic Questions. There can be displayed and students answer online, or on paper. They can also be printed out so students can answer them. A quick look though the answers will inform the teacher very quickly. Also, using the insights on the platform has hundreds or even thousands of misconceptions to questions, which can really help with planning lessons. I find these easier to use than some of the exam question styles as, with these, there are more potential misconceptions that I might miss.

I have added links to the White Rose Diagnostic Questions on my Schemes of Learning, as well as creating Desmos activities and PDFs, if colleagues want hard copies.

Dazzling Desmos!

During this ‘final’ lockdown, where we have all been retraining as ‘remote learning tutors’, we have all been experimenting with different methods of supporting students learning. I am sure we have all tried both synchronous and asynchronous lessons and finding many benefits and negatives for both. One tool I tried was the Desmos Activity Platform (not to be confused with the Desmos graphing tool) and I have found it fits both styles of lesson really well, but the MOST AMAZING thing I found out, was that it can be used for subjects other than mathematics.

I introduced the platform to the talented primary teacher, I call Mrs H, and she has taken it and run both English and science lessons on it with great success with her classes. Here is a screen shot of one of here activities (kindly agreed by Mrs H when I brought her a cup of tea!!)

Example of a card sort in science
example of a text answer in science

So I thought I would write a blog about how the platform works and why it is so useful for remote learning.

Firstly, it is a very easy platform to work with, everything is very obvious as to the activity and the drag and drop method of creating screens make it simple to use. There is a large range of different responses available for students, including text, card sorts, sketchpads, graphing tool and numeric answers to go along with the standard multiple choice of most other platforms. This means that teachers can set a range of different answer formats for students, which will give a better understanding of the learning taking place, (Assessment for Learning!). For most of the options, there is the availability (for those more advanced in basic programming), to set the correct answer for a question.

This is also enhanced by the use of the teacher screen, where you can click on any question by any student and look at their response for accuracy, especially as if there is a ‘correct’ answer available the teacher screen will ‘auto-mark’ the response.

During ‘live’ lessons this screen becomes even more useful, as there is a ‘pause’ button. This option enables the teacher to stop the students from progressing onto any other screen, so that any whole class misconceptions can be immediately reviewed, (AfL at its best!). The teacher can also use the ‘teacher pacing’ button, which enables them to decide the pace at which the screens are moved forward.

There are also options to add pictures and videos to screens, so that the ‘live’ lesson doesn’t need to be recorded, the teacher can just add a video for those students not able to attend into the appropriate screen.

Finally, all the student responses are recorded and can be accessed at any time in the future, so reviewing work done, or even reviewing what needs to be revised can be found very easily.

Many of my mathematics colleagues have already found this amazing platform and use it for ‘live’ graphing’ as well as the activities. For my Key Stage 3 colleagues, who may use White Rose Maths, Charlotte Hawthorne (@mrshawthorne7), has created some incredibly skilful activities for the end of topic assessments on her website ( or on the desmos site here.

The end of ‘lockdown’ and a return to some sort of normality should not put anyone off using Desmos in the classroom or even for homework. If you haven’t tried to make an activity, then try doing one, even if it is for your next department meeting. I am sure you will find it as simple to use as I did and be a worthwhile addition to your expertise.

Flightpaths, are they relevant in our new World? (Key Stage 2 & 3)

During these strange times, with so few aircraft in the skies, is it time for schools to review their use of another airborne analogy?

When the first National Curriculum came out in 1989, levels were used as guidelines for teachers to determine what a student had learned and to create some sort of progression of subject knowledge and skills. Combined with the introduction of School Performance Tables in 1992; a high stakes metric, school management quickly began to use these levels as a way of measuring progress and hence, as Mark McCourt states in this blog, ‘the broad and general pathway through a subject became an ill-informed and utterly ridiculous statement of learning that simply ignores the way in which learning happens.

Even the abolition of National Curriculum Levels in 2013, did little to alleviate this concept. Instead of using these Levels, schools just converted them to GCSE Grades and with it the use of flightpaths, (see a typical example below).

An Example Flightpath Spreadsheet

In turn, this meant every assessment had to be related to GCSE grades and this is a highly complex problem to solve. How can we use an in class assessment, say an end of term test, with a very narrow set of assessment criteria to create a GCSE grade? Students will have less to revise and demonstrate less knowledge. Also, and something many teachers do not know enough about, grade boundaries change every year to account for variations in the difficulty of the paper.

This is not to say that we do not want to know if a student is on track, but attempting to convert test scores to GCSE grades is trying to do the impossible and in doing so, create meaningless and misleading data. A great analogy can be read on Matthew Benyohai’s great blog here

If we understand the need for tracking students attainment then, what do we want to achieve with a tracking system?

Tom Sherrington (@Teacherhead) suggests some starting points in this blog. In this, Matthew’s article and also in Mark Enser’s fantastic book, ‘Teach Like Nobody’s Watching’, (978-1785833991), there is the commonality of some form of ranking of students based on school or National data; this is what happens at KS2, GCSE and A-Level anyway.

Why is ranking students, in some form, better than using GCSE grades?

Firstly, may of us will have had the conversation with parents of a Year 7 or Year 8 student that goes something like this ‘Caleb is currently working at Grade 2b, making progress from a 2c, last term, and if he makes expected progress this should mean he is on track for a GCSE Grade 5 in Year 11‘. After spending ten minutes explaining what the difference is between the nonsensical difference between a 2c and a 2b, the parent will often look glassy-eyed at you as though you are talking a foreign language, and just hears the ‘GCSE Grade 5’. They will have switched off to your wonderful comments about the quality of work, or what topics he had succeeded in last term. But, what if Caleb was progressing towards a GCSE Grade 3? Just the change in predicted grade changes the whole conversation. Suddenly, the parent can get quite anxious about the fact that they are being predicted to FAIL!

If we want to create a growth mindset, we need a system that does not conflate termly in class assessments with an external examination and that can measure relative progress. Standardised assessments can offer this opportunity although, even these need to be used with caution. Rebecca Allen in her blog, ‘Writing the Rules on the grading Game’ (Parts i-iii), mentions many studies that show how students can use the ranking concept to their advantage in a negative way; something Carol Dweck calls ‘learned helplessness’. As Allen, states in part iii,

What matters is how the grading information:

  • Changes their beliefs about their attainment
  • Changes their beliefs about their ability to learn and get better
  • Changes their desire to keep playing the competition of trying to be the best, or maintain their position, or avoid the bottom rung

Before we move onto a potential solution to this, let’s remember what standardised assessments are.

Standardised assessments are tests where the raw score is converted to a standardised score based on a nationally representative sample. 100 is the ‘average’ score.

The main companies that offer these are Hodder Education (RS Assessment), NFER and GL Assessment, although they are only available for Mathematics, Science and Reading (English). With these assessments, students can be tracked according to know criteria, year-on-year, while progress can be measured as the relative position the student is year-on-year. Alternatively, students could be put into 7 groups (see the diagram below for possible groups) and student progress tracked by grouping year-on-year . One word of caution should be mentioned here. The scores are obviously a snapshot of attainment and has a margin of error. Nearly always the 90% confidence interval is given. This means the true score of attainment is 90% certain to be within this range.

Groupings from, click on the picture to link to the website

By labelling the groups, say 1-7 or A-G, then students have some idea of their ‘rank’ in the school and nationally, but cannot convert this to a GCSE Grade easily. The focus for students becomes making progress rather than the end goal; so moving up a group is good, or even improving their score (above the 90% confidence range). For teachers and school leaders data analysis becomes easier as scores (relative ranking) can be compared year-on-year. An example of the measures used for progress can be seen below.

An example measure for progress

Just by using these assessments effectively, schools can track attainment and progress effectively with a fairly simple spreadsheet.

This data demonstrates how Emma is making expected progress over the year and is in the ‘average’ group, while Sasha has also made expected progress, but has moved up to the ‘low average’ group.

Why is measuring ‘progress’ important?

As mentioned previously, one of the major issues with any ranking system is the response from the student. Using the ‘rate’ of progress, gives another level of feedback to a student about the quality of their learning. Maintaining the same grouping, is saying to a student they are making the same progress as everyone else, while moving up or down, demonstrates that they are either learning better or worse than their peers and, in the case of underperformance, something should be done about it. This is where a favourite spreadsheet tool of mine comes in. Using a pivot table can quickly identify ‘key’ students within the cohort, like the one below.

Year 7 Attainment and Progress Pivot Table

The great advantage of using a pivot table is that by clicking on any relevant cell, the student’s names will be created for that group. For example, if there was a group of students not making expected progress, they can easily be determined and appropriate intervention provided for them.

As mentioned previously, this can be done for Mathematics, Science and English. So, in order for this to be effective across the curriculum, ‘every department needs an external reference mechanism to gauge standards: establish it and use it to evaluate standards at KS3.’ (from Teacherhead). Even using comparative judgements on work (for example No More Marking), can be used to rank students and place them into the appropriate groups.

A final word to my Primary school colleagues, although my discussion uses Key Stage 3 and 4, it is also very relevant for Key Stage 1 and 2, with Mathematics and Reading; all the companies mentioned above have tests available for these subjects and the same processes of tracking attainment and progress can be utilised. Also, by using a comparative marking system like ‘No More Marking’ then the same process, (ranking students into groups), can be followed.

I have now created attainment trackers for standardised assessments here. They are free to use and feel free to contact me if there are any errors or any changes you think I should make.

Teacher workload

Damian Hinds has pledged to ‘strip away’ teacher workload. Well we can all ‘strip away’ things, from paint to clothing, but surely this sounds like removing thin layers rather than wholesale changes.


So what things is he going to remove?

Well for a start he could insist that school managers remove the need for every book to be marked every day. Assessment of learning is vital in any good teacher’s role, but that does not mean explicitly marking every book and writing a comment.

Reading Bernard Trafford’s column in the TES this week resonated well with a lot of teachers. One comment was particularly enlightening, where an KS1 teacher spoke of having to write a progress comment in every Y1 pupil’s literacy book, using language that they may understand verbally, but have no hope of reading, let alone being able to act upon it.

Earlier in the week, Gavin Goulds wrote a piece about how his department had cut the amount of marking to a half page of A4 per lesson. Well this is not marking, it is evaluating learning through assessment and evidencing where the learning needs to go next. This is the problem, many school leaders have taken OfSTEDs words for ensuring progress by effective and regular assessment to mean’ Regular Marking’, as this not only ticks the box, it also gives parents & carers the impression that their child’s work is being looked at.

Again, the pedagogical methods of effective assessment and feedback have been hijacked to demonstrate the wrong things to the wrong people.

Let’s get back to what our job is, supporting the intellectual development of young people, through using an effective feedback loop that allows everyone to flourish at their own level and make progress beyond their current performance. If this means immediate verbal feedback that can be actioned within the lesson, peer and self assessment to set criteria and reviews of assessment and exams, then so be it.

Let’s give learning back to the child, then we could have more time planning more effective lessons acting on our assessment rather than endlessly trawling through book after book writing 3 stars and a wish or EBI statements, that will only be read by senior leaders, OfSTED and parents and will have NO impact on learning.

Post-16 GCSE Maths, Fit for Purpose?


In our brave new world of increasing numeracy rates of young people, our Government has decided on ‘increasing’ the demand of GCSE maths.

This has seen a huge increase in students in Further Education having to study GCSE maths.

But has this ‘higher demand’ seen an improvement in the standard of maths from post-16 students.

NO! What has happened is the maths has become more of the abstract skills that these students already struggle with. All this means more disaffected students who feel like failures of the system.

We need to return to the idea of contextual maths for the majority of students, with greater understanding of the key skills required for most employment.

There needs to be a change in the whole system of assessing mathematical skills at 16+.

Does anyone remember the AQA level 1/2 certificates, with topics such as Finaincial management and data analysis; sounds similar to the specifications for Level 3 Core Maths, doesn’t it.

We should all be pushing for a Level 2 Core Maths as the qualification for Post-16 students and leave the GCSE to 16+ exams.