Lessons learnt from the GCSE 9-1 Maths reform

Wow! Where has the time gone.  It only seems like 5 minutes ago that the GCSE reforms were announced, and here we are – 4 sittings later (don’t forget November!) with the 5th just around the corner. Having been through many reforms/changes/tweaks/updates over my 15-year teaching career (that has also passed in the blink of an eye!), I can honestly say … this was the biggest.  Coursework going (I liked this change), 3 to 2 tier, modular coming and going, little stars appearing next to the question numbers (quality of written communication questions!) and of course the introduction of 9-1.  This change not only ripped apart the content, it also ripped apart the currency (I’m still saying now ‘you need to get your grade C…’).

The content to get through for this new GCSE is MUCH bigger than the previous GCSE and most departments I meet are starting the course in year 9 to compensate for this.  To be fair, maths is maths and as long as they have a sound understanding of the basics (a great KS1,2 and 3), starting in year 9 is a sensible option.  I like to think our KS3 course (which is year 7 and 8 for us) is robust, enjoyable and naturally supports the GCSE, it almost feels right to be starting the GCSE as they enter year 9.

My biggest concern, still after 4 sittings, is getting the tier of entry correct.  Although this concern is now for less students than it was for the first sitting in 2017, it’s still not a straight forward decision for those 3/4/5 borderline students.  It’s around March/Easter time that I still find myself making some last-minute changes.  The foundation and higher papers are such ‘different beasts’ … with the huge ‘number’ content in the foundation papers and huge ‘algebra’ content in the higher papers it’s not a simple decision to switch between the two.  To help with this tiering decision, our lower Higher group (hope that makes sense) and our Foundation group follow the same content (the crossover material) until around Christmas in Year 11 with both groups being given regular ‘foundation paper challenges’ (this means the lessons can concentrate on the crossover material).  The opportunity to regularly work through the start of the foundation papers means the students who remain on or move to Foundation are practising the start the papers (accompanying the crossover content in lessons) and the ones who end up staying on Higher have been developing their basic numeracy skills.  It’s great to run these with mixed ability groups – the higher students quickly realise that the foundation paper is NOT an easier option! After Christmas, the lower higher group then adds higher only topics to the crossover topics in lessons (you know the big ones – CF, Box Plots, Histograms etc. etc.).  With the students we are still unsure about – they remain in the higher group but with constant foundation paper challenges to allow us to bring these to Foundation a little closer to the exam if necessary (we are now at this point only talking about a couple of students).

I know I am not on my own when I say this – but getting the tier correct is not for school league tables, it’s for the student.  Thinking that a pupil could not achieve what they deserve based on my decision is scary.  The exams are still settling down … we are still getting our heads around exactly what a 9-1 paper includes.  I understand that under historic reforms, grade boundaries normally increase and then settle after around 3 years.  But this new GCSE has had significant changes from one sitting to the next as the examiners really understand what a realistic expectation is of what a 16-year-old can achieve in 90 minutes … so it may take a little longer to steady this ship.  I, along with everyone who reads this, will be eagerly awaiting the next batch of results (and grade boundaries/mark schemes!) … so, my final words are GOOD LUCK ALL!

By Christian Seager

Christian Seager is part of the leadership team at Alcester Academy, Warwickshire.  Christian led the maths team at Alcester Academy to the TES Maths Team of the Year 2016, directed the maths results to the dizzy heights they are now accustomed to with the progress 8 measure consistently above 0.5 and not to forget, his previous school was Most Improved School in England when the maths department was under his wing.  In addition to his day job, he co-runs JustMaths that helps support maths departments across the country.

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