I start to get nervous about GCSE results about a week before they come out. I anxiously look back at the paper, obsess about particular children who could have gone either way on the day and have anxiety dreams that steadily intensify as the big day looms. As a Head of Department, I worry about whether I’ve got interventions in the right place, put in enough support for trickier groups and done enough to mitigate staff absence. And let’s not forget that it’s not actually us taking the exams – we do everything we can to give students the best possible chance to do well but on the day their success is their own and although it can be tempting to take the credit, we are a tiny part of each student’s achievement (or failure).
In terms of my class’ results, I try not to worry (though writing this particular post before seeing them does feel a little like tempting fate) They are normally strong as they should be after a significant time teaching; if you are leading a department then helping students achieve good results is a crucial part in winning the confidence of your team and convincing them that you know what you’re talking about. My results haven’t always been consistent though, particularly not in the early years of my career and I believe the way we reflect on our results is absolutely crucial in building successful outcomes in the long term: whether that involves unpicking a class that haven’t performed as well as expected, working out what went well in order to replicate it in future years or looking for opportunities for marginal gains in a strong set of results.
It’s not always a comfortable process. One of the most consistently brilliant GCSE teachers in my department is one of the best people I’ve ever seen at working through her results effectively. However good her headlines figures are, her analysis of her results is always focused on the one or two students that haven’t achieved or the question that isn’t answered as well by her class as others in the department. It’s this forensic analysis and brutal honesty that make her such an effective practitioner. She celebrates her successes but is rigorous in identifying where she thinks she can improve her practice for the next year. She does just that as well.
If your results are not as good as you hoped they’d be, the process of analysing them is so much more important than beating yourself up about it. Here are some questions that might help you to think about your outcomes and some actions that are going to have a meaningful impact on your teaching next year:
- Were the results what you were expecting?
- If your results are much higher or lower than what you forecast, this is something to think about for next year. If there’s a trend of being too harsh or over generous, this is an easy bias to identify and rectify for your next year’s teaching. You might find it’s more subtle and you tend to have underestimated a particular group e.g. high attainers or been generous in your assessment of grade 5 students.
- Ask yourself if you are forecasting accurately or using more cautious forecasts to motivate students. Be brutal – has it worked? If not change your approach next year. If we approach things in the same ways, we’ll get the same results.
- If your results are erratically inaccurate then find out which of your colleagues are spot on and arrange to do some joint marking or ask for a second opinion around grades you feel less sure about in your early September assessments.
- How did key groups do? Can you recognise any trends?
- If you’re looking at key groups try to think about them over time and in context. It’s not useful to look at your results, see that boys have not done as well as girls this year and conclude that there is an enormous issue with the way you approach gender. What were the boys like in your group? Is it really a gender divide or is it students targeted around the middle ability where you happen to have more boys? If you think you’ve identified an issue look back at previous results and see if it is a genuine pattern. If it is, that gives you something to work on but don’t jump to unhelpful conclusions on a limited sample of data – give it appropriate context.
- Some groups to think about might be:
- Disadvantaged vs non disadvantaged
- High, middle and low attainers
- Highly motivated vs D=difficult to motivate
- SEN vs Non SEN students
- EAL vs Non EAL students
- Who did really well?
- This is an easy step to miss – being forensic about your results means thinking about what’s gone well and making sure that you continue the strategies that have worked for your students this year. Think about your strongest paper or question. Which groups have excelled? Who are the students that could have easily failed but put in a stellar performance? Make sure you name them and think about what you specifically did that helped them to achieve. Did you really push revision? Did you assess certain books before the others or push SEN interventions with the SENCO? It’s not just about celebrating your hard work, it’s about understanding your strengths as a teacher.
- How did the outliers do?
- We always have them – that child who has so much going on in their life outside of school that GCSEs are less of a priority than survival. Don’t beat yourself up about these students, there is sometimes little you can do and your line manager and SLT will be acutely aware of this and will shoulder the responsibility of whether we gave them ever chance possible to do well. Some questions that might help are:
- How did they do in other subjects? Is a low result in your subject reflected across their GCSEs?
- If they did better in subjects with similar skills it might be worth talking to those members of staff about what they did to achieve this.
- Obviously our priority should always be getting a good grade so that student’s options beyond school are the best they can possibly be. It is worth remembering though that a lower grade is better than no grade in a subject. A grade 1 or 2 is a GCSE and although you might feel the sting of it being massively under what a student might have achieved under different circumstances, it is better than them walking away with nothing. You are also still contributing to the school’s progress 8 score and mitigating the impact on overall results as well.
- Be careful not to dismiss drastically underachieving students as inevitable every year. Sometimes there is little we can do but there are some potential areas to target. Could you send home a cheap revision guide next year for a child who is not in school? Or e-mail YouTube links directly to parents where there is a long term absence? If your disadvantaged students are not going to do any revision at home, would a quotations quiz in school once a week help students who don’t have the support at home?
- How did your class perform in individual questions?
- Most exam boards make tools available to give you a detailed breakdown of performance by question. If you have access to E-AQA you can select your individual students by setting up a ‘group’ and see how they did in each question. Look at this in comparison to the rest of your department, nationally and even against similar centres. It might be that your students are doing brilliantly on one paper but issues in the other have had a real impact overall.
- Once you have identified weaker areas, use the examiner’s report, resources, blog posts and of course those colleagues who have really nailed it to plan a different approach this year. Your Head of Department is likely to have tracked down anyone doing the marking for some departmental inset early on but be proactive in identifying the areas you need to reconsider – at this stage it might be just being aware of needing to plan them more carefully when they next come up. Last year, I was particularly mindful of how I approached lessons on structure; the impact of this change will hopefully be seen in this year’s results.
- Ask your Head of Department if you can order some papers (you’ll need to get permission from students) they cost about £10-£12 each and are a wonderful investment for the department. If you find your students are losing marks on the narrative writing or they are not picking up the higher bands for the comparison question on paper 2, your Head of Department will be able to look at E-AQA and find a student who has done well and order a copy for you. Not only can you dissect a model and work out why this student has done well (possibly discussing specific strategy with their class teacher) you can use it with your classes this year and make sure they understand why this is such a strong response. A hint here is choose someone with a high mark AND coherent handwriting for a less frustrating experience all round.
- Can you see the impact?
- Make a list of the strategies that you’ve used this year – try and rank it in terms of time invested as well. If for example, you marked all Year 11 books twice a week or did a weekly test on quotations can you see the impact of it in these results?
- Next, go through your list and tick what you think has worked and cross off any strategies that need a rethink. Our department have spent a lot of time putting on revision classes after school and targeting borderline students; I worked out that this year we provided 35 hours of additional after school revision between us and I suspect the impact of this is not going to be as strong as we hope. If I don’t see a significant return on our investment of time that’s not a strategy we’ll use again– I’m not giving up on this group but we’re going to experiment with Instagram (where one of our teachers had massive success with some live feeds) and providing revision tuition that can be accessed at home rather than delivered through live exam sessions.
You can write up a detailed report and spend hours manipulating statistics for your own ends but really it boils down to spending some time thinking about what went well, what didn’t and what your plan is going forward. Anything that’s more than a single A4 page is too much. Try to focus on manageable actions that you can use in performance management conversations with your head of department or team leader. If you would like a copy of a proforma based on these questions please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’re more than happy to share an electronic copy with you.
If you’ve done something that has made a real difference or feel there’s other areas that would benefit really good reflection, please do tell us in the comments below. Wishing you and your students a happy results day!