From the coalface 5

Occasionally I open up the blog to others to write a post or two … (don’t worry Seager isn’t getting another chance … EVER!). Some of the motives for doing this stem from being able to offer a different view on life at the coalface but also because I find other people’s views fascinating and sometimes challenge my own thoughts or at the very least they make me stop and think. The below made me stop and think about the unseen “cost” to maths education of the GCSE changes – no matter how many times I tell myself that the current year 11 are protected because of the pegging of grades 1,4 and 7 with G, C and A I do sometimes feel that we will see less of this cohort (at a national level) going on to study Maths at post-16 or even being inspired to become maths teachers themselves. I know for a fact, that maths teachers everywhere will be doing whatever we can to protect our students from the stress of dealing with these changes but the uncertainty of tiering/not being able to confidently predict outcomes or even have a firm handle on what to expect with the exams means that it will inevitably rub off (but should it?) I sometimes wonder if people on the outside, looking in would think that the teaching community is incompetent when we can’t answer seemingly simple questions like “what tier of entry is best for my son/daughter? It rings a MASSIVE bell for me … up until my late teens my plan was to go back to Newport, marry my fiance and do my PGCE in what was known as Craft, Design and Technology but I was (partly) turned off the idea having been part of the first year of the new GCSE back in the late 80’s. To be fair I also met my (soon-to-be) husband in the last term at uni and the idea of returning home was shelved permanently!

For the cynics out there I’ll repeat what I’ve said loads of time: I agree with the changes “in principle” but they feel rushed and badly thought out in their execution but that’s a result (IMO) of education being used as a political football when in fact what we need is a period of stability and no meddling from those in Whitehall. Yes we know it isn’t perfect but we need to tweak the system going forward and not have these massive wholesale changes again. Lessons need to be learned. I doubt they will though!

So dear reader … I present to you from Peter Hall ( @maths_ast ) lots of questions to make you think, ending with some positivity about the longer term possibilities!

Things can only get better? 

Feels like we’ve spent the last few years skating on thin ice without too many casualties.  We’ve learned how much more valuable a grade C is than a grade D and we’ve pushed hard.  It is an odd place to be.  Clearly a students’ life chances are improved vastly with the grade C, but it’s also good for our schools’ performance and ours too.

But at such a price! We’ve convinced ourselves that it is quite OK for students to attempt papers where we expect them to only get halfway (stop at the staples….) and to get only mostly correct answers.  So they can achieve about 40% which is enough for a grade C and we’re all happy.  A very bizarre  examination system that encourages us all to believe that 40% is a “good pass “.

Where are the casualties?  A-level students with little resilience, with the expectation that they can try every question in advance, without much ability to problem solve and work independently.   Or students who have walked away from maths with a “good pass” but having spent their last year on little more than exam technique. Or the students who’ve cruised to a grade B with little support or encouragement to improve.

The times they are a-changing?

Could this summer see a new future?  Will the 9 to 1 examination bring us more opportunity to teach decent maths?  Will we encourage a new generation of students to apply their knowledge more capably?  Will they be more resilient, more confident and actually better students?

I fear for my current year 11 students, I have a small class struggling towards grade 3 if I’m lucky.  For them the curriculum is overwhelming and I feel like the ice has cracked and melted and they are left tying to hop from iceberg to iceberg in a mad panic.  If not for the exam we could be quite capable numerically, but their memory for algorithms and knowledge is patchy, and a bit too “sieve-like” at times.  At least every grade counts, at least their Attainment 8 and Progress 8 scores are being monitored, so we care much more for them than we might have done a few years ago.

But for my year 10, a class at the top of their game, this new exam ought to be  good news.  They ought to finish year 11 as confident and capable mathematicians able to utilise their knowledge and skills in all kinds of situations.  They won’t need scaffolded questions.  Hannah’s sweets will be a delight, and A-level will be a challenge but a reasonable one.

Big brother is watching?

But the performance measures are still there.  How can we stop a media circus as the 9 to 5 figure will be lower than the A* to C figure? Never mind the media, but will our schools understand?  As many of our colleagues are still achieving letters grades will they and our senior teams see sense?  I fear not, and I fear an Autumn of 2017 with too many autopsies in too many schools.  Let’s hope not, and perhaps we’ll need to support each other and be ready to offer advice and help to colleagues who need it.

The only way is up?

I return to school with fresh hope for a better future, seems like our top students are getting a better deal (though I’m not sure they need it, with such a cost to the rest).  I’m hopeful I can jolly my year 11 through their final few months and maybe things will finally come together for them.  Their future isn’t as bright as it ought to be.  Some will finally make a plan for their post year 11 life and I’m hoping that will make the difference in their motivation, in their dedication and their work rate.

So for them much revision and practice, a kind of “throw as much mud as I can and hope some sticks”.  At the same time – the challenge of the enlarged syllabus for the year 10 class – but with less mud and more interest and hopefully more understanding.

2017-07-02T19:57:04+00:00 January 3rd, 2017|Blog, From the Coal Face, NEW GCSE 9-1|


  1. MsH January 3, 2017 at 9:08 pm

    Hi Mel,

    Just to say thanks for all your thoughtful comments that always inspire, provoke thoughtfulness but ultimately helps me to realise that I do know what I am talking about(!) and am privileged to be part of a fantastic community. The pieces from both yourself and Peter are a reflection of how I feel. Ultimately, I agree that change had to happen to ensure that the country continues to produce the skilled labour required to sustain this economy as well as ensure our students are well prepared for the world of work!
    Keep up the good work!

  2. JustMathsMel January 3, 2017 at 9:31 pm

    awww thank you for those comments x

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