Unspecifications

23Feb16

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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3 Responses to “Unspecifications”

  1. 1 DRB

    I’m also frustrated that this process is taking so long. I really cannot understand why it takes 3 redrafts to get a specification to be acceptable, when the criteria seem to be quite clear. But as we’re not (as mere ‘consumers’) going to be told the reasons for the rejection, I can only speculate that the DfE are moving the goalposts again. It’s just frustrating to have to guess which goalposts are moving, and in which direction.

    Your post sums up the situation very well, from my point of view (Physics specialist, trying to choose a spec. for September). I was going to post a longer reply, but I found that I was simply repeating what you had written, so I deleted it!

  2. 2 craftyteacher

    It is just driving me nuts! The AQA Physics is not well ordered, the Chemistry makes little sense and I haven’t even looked at the Biology – some one else is looking after that! The suggested teaching orders put lots of what would have been yr11 content into the new yr9 sections and our students just can’t cope. We have so little time to plan as it is, this just isn’t helping! Feeling stressed by it all. And it’s on top of rewriting KS3 for life after levels… And new A levels! It’s just a bit too much all at once. I can’t even begin to think about 1-9!

    • Add in that textbook publishers often follow the specification for their page order… I don’t know if Biology and Chemistry have the same amount of additional content compared to the previous specification, some from A-Level and some now explicitly examined but usually taught at KS3? In Physics magnetism and mixing colours of light are two examples.


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