The reformed Science GCSEs have presented many challenges. In my presentation, I shared just nine of them and looked at how my team and I have addressed these issues over the last three years.
1. Increased focus on Maths in Science – we found that students struggled to make the link between what they learnt in Maths and the skills we were asking them to use in Science. With 20% of marks being allocated to assessing Maths skills we needed to overcome this issue. We developed an Introduction to Science unit and taught this at the beginning of Year 9 from September until October half term. This unit is made up of two strands, one being the Maths in Science aspect and the other being Practical Skills. In the Maths in Science strand, we build maths skills into Science contexts with as much practical work as possible so that students can see how maths is used in these situations. We also have a closer working relationship with the Maths department. They have been given a copy of our equations which they can use in lessons and we have also discussed when skills are taught in Maths versus when we will reach them in Science. Another beneficial activity has been to look at the language used by the Maths department so that we can mirror this. For example, we used to talk about rearranging equations but the Maths department teaching students to “solve equations” or “make x the subject” which is a subtle but powerful difference and has broken down some of the barriers we were facing when rearranging equations.
2. Equations not provided in the exam – students are now expected to recall 21 equations and may then have to rearrange these equations and complete multi-step calculations. We have been completing weekly equation tests, checking whether students can recall them in either symbol or word form. We also teach students how to rearrange equations during our Maths in Science work.
3. Terminal exams – students and teachers must get used to having a huge body of knowledge that will be assessed at the end of the course and this has a significant bearing on the messages we give to students about revision. As a school, there has been a drive towards distributed and interleaved revision. Based on the theory of Ebbinghaus and his Forgetting Curve, we need our students to continually review the work from previous units, terms and years so that they don’t forget and don’t have to cram at the last minute. We have produced and provided knowledge organisers for every unit and we have given students access to unit checklists which they can refer to regularly to check their learning. We complete knowledge tests frequently which included interleaved content. Tests may be a simple 10 questions each lesson or may be a full one-hour test. Questions may range from multiple choice to short or long answers. I am also trialling interleaved homework for Year 11 with 10 questions taken from across the whole range of the course.
4. Tiers of entry – the boundary between higher and foundation has shifted from the old C/D border and now lies closer to the B/C border with Foundation papers covering grades 1-5 and Higher covering 4-9. With a 5 being the highest possible grade on the Foundation paper, we have to ask ourselves whether students will have a better chance of getting a 5 on the Higher or Foundation paper. Given the fact that the Higher paper will begin with standard demand questions (approximately 40% of the paper) and will then ramp up to higher demand questions (the remaining 60% of the paper, many students may find this challenging. On the Foundation paper, students will be faced with around 60% of questions at low demand and 40% at standard demand. We have decided that if students are not a confident grade 6 then they will sit the Foundation tier as we believe this gives the student the best chance of achieving a grade 5 which may be the best outcome for them. Between now and the exam entry deadline we will be analysing the common questions on the Higher and Foundation mocks very closely to help inform these decisions.
5. Uncertainty about grade boundaries – with the removal of UMS and the introduction of 9-1 grades, nobody can categorically say what is required to achieve a specific grade. We know the exam boards will use a method called “comparable outcomes” but they can’t begin this process until the exams are completed and marked. We also know that grade 9s will be awarded through a statistical calculation which we cannot replicate. Therefore, we have decided not to apply any grades to work or exam papers at all. Percentages are given so that we can make comparisons and students are encouraged to work towards as high a percentage as possible. This also applies to KS3, so students are moving through the school they are not expecting to receive grades, so the focus can be on improvement of their knowledge and understanding.
6. Increased amount of content – with a reduction in teaching time at KS4 and a Year 9 programme which lacked purpose, the decision was made to start teaching GCSE in Year 9. We mapped out the curriculum from October Half Term of Year 9 and aimed to finish by Christmas of Year 11. We are approaching this finishing point now, so this will allow us to have a significant period of revision between January and May.
7. Required practicals assessed through exams – 15% of the marks on the final exams will assess student’s practical skills so it is vital that students realise the importance of the required practicals. However, it is not just the required practicals in isolation that students need to be confident with. They also need to be able to apply knowledge of the apparatus and techniques to different contexts. We have issued all students with a separate lab book for work on the required practicals to ensure students recognise the importance of this work and this makes the work easy to find for revision. Relevant exam questions are used alongside the practical work so there is exposure to plenty of examples, some with slightly varying contexts. As a team, we have departmental sessions where we trial run every practical and work together to identify issues or pitfalls and to try to identify the types of questions that may be asked in each scenario.
8. Application of knowledge in different contexts – there is an increase in the weighting of AO2 (Application of knowledge) and there are fewer examples stated in the specification. This means there are potentially many more wider contexts that exam questions could focus on and students must show that they can apply their knowledge to these unfamiliar situations. We try to ensure that students are exposed to lots of examples and a wide range of exam questions. This also gives us greater freedom to explore lots of different contexts as part of “normal teaching”.
9. No single science option – with a huge amount of challenging content and the removal of the “core only” route, low ability students have limited options. We have found it beneficial to deliver the Foundation content via the Entry Level Certificate scheme of learning.
In summing up these challenges, I do feel that they present us with a great opportunity to reflect on what we have always done and improve our daily practice.