Diary of a subject leader
Real issues in the life of a fictional Subject Leader
Eighteen months ago, in August 2008, my team and I looked at the OCR Staged Module results of our ‘new’ Year 11. ‘New’ because they were going into their final GCSE year and the ‘old’ Year 11 were off to new pastures, but also new because we, the mathematics team, were all new to our school. The results began to give us second thoughts – why had we come here? More than 70% of students received a grade U. Admittedly, some of those were working at B’s, and C’s etc. but 70% of them had been unable to do sufficiently well to achieve the minimum grade on their paper.
There was no doubt that starting Year 11 with results like that was a handicap rather than a credit. We quickly changed our plans and went for what we saw as a simple variable rate repayment mortgage – Edexcel’s Linear GCSE. (And isn’t it interesting that OCR’s staged module syllabus has gone the way of so many of those more interesting mortgage products. More’s the pity when it comes to my mortgage – and, for some students, more’s the pity when it comes to their GCSE. I really liked the staged system and for less confident students it was really helpful.) Anyway, we had no choice but the linear option. A few parents of the very few who had ‘banked well’ as it were, were less than pleased, but most students were happy for a fresh start.
As we went through that first year we learnt the culture of our new school. And more and more we realised that our Year 11 students were just not able to get the idea of delayed gratification. They wanted success and they wanted it yesterday, so there was no point in working hard for tomorrow, let alone for six months down the line. We wondered how much those very poor module results had affected them. Year 10 were even worse – as you may know! Year 9 however, showed considerable promise. Not only were they statistically a better cohort, but they could be enthused. They would have a go at an investigation and if you gave them a challenge they would make sure they gave it their best shot. We were a little disappointed that the KS3 SATs were cancelled – it felt like our one area of proven success was being confiscated, and we would have to mark the **** papers! We sat the SATs and marked the SATs. The levels were conspicuously good – but then, they were a better cohort.
Given how good the SATs were and, more importantly, just how motivated students were by the results, we took a last minute punt on starting a modular course about six months too late. We spent the last fortnight of the summer term starting on a Data Handling Module to be sat in November. It was hard going right through to the exam. And on more than one occasion, I felt we had reacted too emotionally and not thought through the full implications of pushing the new Year 10s into a module so early, and without more careful planning. Particularly nagging was the effect it was having in some key C/D borderline groups. The required pace left little time for more engaging activities and ‘easing-up’ on a wet windy Friday afternoon when kids were ‘high as kites’ was just not an option.
13 January 2010 might become the new Friday 13th. If the results were poor, we could really be back to square one – and we had actually made so much progress over the past 16 months. Our last set of results – Year 11 2009 entry – we were just a few points shy of our 50% A*-C target. How would these modules compare?
Typically, I was just given the individual results sheets for each student, so it was a tale of two piles. Initially it looked grim, then I realised that although in alphabetical order, they were batched by tier of entry and I had just sorted the foundation! With the higher, I thought I had only put four papers on the ‘below C’ pile. Indeed, the ‘made-it’ pile appeared a little thicker than the other. We looked to be over 50%. We made 63.9%. It felt great. I have since been more thorough in my analysis and compared it to our FFT targets. It doesn’t look as great, but still much better than any year group in the previous five or so years.
What really is great however, is the impact it has had on students. They actually care about what they got, and what is says about them. To me, it says what a good job my team have done in turning a school totally disaffected with maths into one where achievement in our subject is something that all students wish to take pride in. A number of ‘likely lads’ have found that their mates who actually knuckled down to some work have outscored them by two, and in some cases three, GCSE grades. And a few of those ‘likely-lads’ – to use their words – have told me, “That just ain’t funny.” Did I laugh? Well, I’ll let you guess!