Unspecifications

I’m really starting to get annoyed with this, and I’m not even in the classroom full-time. I know that many colleagues – @A_Weatherall and @hrogerson on Staffrm for example – are also irritated. But I needed to vent anyway. It’ll make me feel better.

EDIT: after discussion on Twitter – with Chemistry teachers, FWIW – I’ve decided it might help to emphasise that my statements below are based on looking at the Physics specification. I’d be really interested with viewpoints from those who focus on teaching Biology and Chemistry, as well as those with opinions on whether I’ve accurately summed up the situation with Physics content or overreacted.

The current GCSE Science specifications are due to expire soon, to be replaced by a new version. To fit in with decisions by the Department for Education, there are certain changes to what we’ve been used to. Many others have debated these changes, and in my opinion they’re not necessarily negative when viewed objectively. Rather than get into that argument, I’ll just sum them up:

  1. Terminal exams at the end of year 11
  2. A different form of indirect practical skills assessment (note that ISAs and similar didn’t directly assess practical skills either)
  3. More content (100+ pages compared to the previous 70ish for AQA)
  4. Grades 9-1 rather than A*-G, with more discrimination planned for the top end (and, although not publicised, less discrimination between weaker students)

Now, like many other subjects, the accreditation process seems to be taking longer than is reasonable. It also feels, from  the classroom end, that there’s not a great deal of information about the process, including dates. The examples I’m going to use are for AQA, as that’s the specification I’m familiar with. At least partly that’s because I’m doing some freelance resource work and it’s matched to the AQA spec.

Many schools now teach GCSE Science over more than two years. More content is one of several reasons why that’s appealing; the lack of an external KS3 assessment removes the pressure for an artificial split in content. Even if the ‘official’ teaching of GCSE starts in Year 10, the content will obviously inform year 9 provision, especially with things like language used, maths familiarity and so on.

Many schools have been teaching students from a the first draft specification since last September. The exam boards are now working on version three.

The lack of exemplar material, in particular questions, mean it is very hard for schools to gauge likely tiers and content demand for ‘borderline’ students. Traditionally, this was the C-D threshold and I’m one of many who recognized the pressure this placed on schools with league tables, with teachers being pushed much harder to help kids move from a D to a C grade than C to B. the comparison is (deliberately) not direct. As I understand it an ‘old’ middle grade C is now likely to be a level 4, below the ‘good pass’ of a level 5.

Most schools start to set for GCSE groups long before the end of Year 9. Uncertainties about the grade implications will only make this harder.

The increased content has three major consequences for schools. The first is the teaching time needed as mentioned above. The second is CPD; non-specialists in particular are understandably nervous about teaching content at GCSE which until now was limited to A-level. This is my day-job and it’s frustrating not to be able to give good guidance about exams, even if I’m confident about the pedagogy. (For Physics: latent heat, equation for energy stored in a stretched spring, electric fields, pressure relationships in gases, scale drawings for resultant forces, v2 = u2 -2as, magnetic flux density.) The last is the need for extra equipment, especially for those schools which don’t teach A-level Physics, with the extra worry about required practicals.

Even if teachers won’t be delivering the new specification until September, they need to familiarize themselves with it now. Departments need to order equipment at a time of shrinking budgets.

I’m not going to suggest that a new textbook can solve everything, but they can be useful. Many schools have hung on in the last few years as they knew the change in specification was coming – and they’ve been buying A-level textbooks for that change! New textbooks can’t be written quickly. Proofreading, publishing, printing, delivery all take time. This is particularly challenging when new styles of question are involved, or a big change such as the new language for energy changes. Books are expensive and so schools want to be able to make a good choice. Matching textbooks to existing resources, online and paper-based, isn’t necessarily fast.

Schools need time to co-ordinate existing teaching resources, samples of new textbooks and online packages to ensure they meet student needs and cost limitations.

Finally, many teachers feel they are being kept in the dark. The first specification wasn’t accredited, so exam boards worked on a second. For AQA, this was submitted to Ofqual in December (I think) but not made available on the website. Earlier this month, Ofqual chose not to accredit this version, but gave no public explanation of why. Teachers are left to rely on individual advisers, hearsay and twitter gossip. This information would have given teachers an idea of what was safe to rely on and what was likely to change. It took several weeks for the new submission dates to appear on the website – now  mid-March – and according to Ofqual it can take eight weeks from submission to accreditation.

If these time estimates are correct, the new AQA specification may not be accredited until mid-May and as yet there is nothing on record about what was wrong with previous versions. Teachers feel they are being left in the dark yet will be blamed when they don’t have time to prepare for students in September

I think that says it all.

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Asking for a friend

All secondary teachers look forward to the summer term. Not just because we might actually get to see daylight before and after work, but for that possibly mythical creature, ‘gained time’. Assuming you don’t end up teaching RE to stroppy teenagers after a colleague collapses in tears trying to reconcile ‘Trinity’ and ‘monotheism’, you might get a classroom to yourself. Without kids. A chance to have a cuppa and finally clear out the bottom drawer of detention forms and credits.

Until you get handed 100 pages of new syllabus and are asked to write a scheme of work for September, that is.

Science teachers across the land are currently going quietly mad about the new GCSE specifications. We’ve lost count of which draft version the boards are on, although rumours abound that they’re going to be properly published any minute now. Even if you’re planning to start in September for a two-year GCSE this is cutting it fine for buying/creating resources, let alone ordering kit for the required practicals and any new content. And if you teach the content over three years, you’ve been having to use a draft specification for real kids. Which is more than a little frightening.

Reciprocal Altruism

I’ve blogged before about the difficulties of finding resources to use without trawling through dozens of sites, each with their own login and categories. Even great sites like the eLibrary (its URL has changed but your login should be the same) can’t have everything. And every time the specifications change, we have to move everything around. If schools can share the planning then the workload can be reduced.

A school in Hampshire is holding a free “Science Curriculum in a day” event in March. Basically loads of teachers building a scheme of work as best they can. It’s organised by @MartynReah who tweeted about it, and I wondered if I could help. I can’t make it down there (although I will be trying to contribute via twitter: #teacher5adayScience ) and I suspect that’s true for many of my readers too. So how about crowdsourcing a resource list instead?

I’ve created a GoogleForm. It should take just a couple of minutes to complete for each online resource you’d like to share. Copy and paste the URL, tick a few boxes so they can be sorted by subject/topic and type of resource, and you’re done. The resulting spreadsheet will be freely available (although it’s currently pretty empty) and be used by those who can attend the day as a starting point.

EDIT: I’ve sorted a couple of bugs so specifying Chemistry topics doesn’t lead you to the Physics list (completely accidental I promise!) and you can now describe something as ‘All Subjects’. No need to repeat submissions but please add to the seven so far!

(I’ve suggested to Martyn that a Dropbox folder would allow colleagues to donate their own offline resources too, and will update this post if relevant.)

Maths

I have, according to WordPress, 132 followers. If each one of those can contribute a couple of links between now and the event, that’s over 250 teacher-recommended resources for a new Scheme of Work. The more people who get involved, the better the spreadsheet will be for us all, on the day or not. Heads of Department, why not ask your teams to add a favourite resource? NQTs, this would allow you to tick the ‘sharing good practice’ box on your paperwork. Fancy helping out?

I’ve even created short links so you can stick it up on noticeboards or in staff meetings. Please share widely. I intend to be tweeting this regularly with a running total of shared resources, so please help get the numbers up.

Form: tinyurl.com/teacher5adayscience

Results: tinyurl.com/teacher5adayscience-all