New GCSE exams were taken for the first time this summer in English and Maths. According to the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) exam statistics, 2.6% of pupils were awarded the new grade 9, compared with 4% achieving an A* last year. In Maths, 3.5% achieved a 9, compared to 7% achieving an A* last year. Only 0.4% of pupils achieved a clean sweep of 9s across English Language, English Literature and Mathematics. Last year, a greater proportion of pupils, 1.1% attained A*s across these subjects. Whilst the aim of the GCSE grading changes was to differentiate between the top pupils, which seems to have been achieved (enabling Oxford and Cambridge University to identify exceptional applicants), it clearly shows the difficulty of achieving a top grade. We should be slightly cautious of comparing the new reformed GCSEs against historical ones; as they are assessed differently. The new linear based exams are more challenging, as examinations are all sat at the end of the GCSE course, whereas previously they were sat as modules throughout the course. In 2018, Year 11 pupils will be sitting the numerous other reformed GCSEs, including humanities and science subjects. There is still more phasing of new GCSEs so, by the summer of 2020, all GCSEs sat will be the reformed ones, so we need to prepare our pupils now.

At Ipswich High School, we are mindful of the additional exam stress that these new linear GCSE exams place upon our pupils, which is why we have responded by designing our GCSE curricula to be taught over three years rather than two. Science and Maths have always historically been taught over three years due to their content, but our decision to extend this to all of our GCSE subjects is one that makes common sense and is distinct from many other schools, not just in Suffolk, but across the country. This means that either GCSE skills, content or both start to be taught in Year 9, rather than in Year 10. In reality, this extra year means teaching can really focus on embedding key information and gives pupils more of an opportunity to apply their knowledge, which ultimately will give them more confidence in exams. There will also be more time for exam practice and, more time to delve into the wider scope of subjects, so they will not only revise key specification points, but they will understand the wider context. We strongly believe that this will give pupils at Ipswich High a distinct advantage over other pupils, ultimately resulting in better learners and higher GCSE results.

We have also taken the step to modify our lower Senior School curriculum (in Years 7 and 8) to focus on embedding key information within each subject. Homework set has a focus on “mastery”, for example, a task may be to learn key information on a topic which will then be tested in a lesson, success is only possible with a high percentage success rate (mastery demands a success of 80+%). This approach provides the foundation for studying GCSEs, where we want our pupils to be proficient and adaptable learners.

A specially designed “study skills” course, which starts in Year 9, helps to support our pupils in preparation for their GCSEs. This includes a programme called “Learning to Learn” where pupils receive tips on revision and advice on how to make information “stick” for different subjects. In Year 10 an external provider also addresses exam stress by giving practical ways to manage it along with ways to make studying more effective. Further elements of the “study skills” course, includes a “further study” session, where pupils think about next steps, for example taking A Level courses; important as there is a pre-requisite of a minimum level 7 to allow further study of a subject at A Level at Ipswich High School. Careers sessions and an enterprise challenge are also on offer alongside a comprehensive programme to help pupils think about the future, without pressure and in a supportive environment.

We are very mindful of our pupils in Year 10 and 11 who will also be sitting newly reformed GCSE in 2018 and 2019. For this very reason, teachers make sure that they are regularly exposed to exam style questions. Whilst there is little exemplar material available from exam boards for the new style GCSEs, our experienced teachers are able to design questions that are of a similar format to the exemplar material that is available. Advice for exam preparation and managing exam stress is also available in Years 10 and 11 as well as, in some cases, a teacher mentor to provide further support outside of lessons. This combined with subject specific help clinics outside of lesson time, all helps to provide support.

Our pupils have always been encouraged to be independent and to take responsibility for their own learning, which is why our nurturing environment outlined above will only seek to strengthen their success in the future. To conclude, we strongly believe our approach to the new GCSEs at Ipswich High is pro-active rather than reactive and we are confident that our pupils will be fully prepared to face the challenges of the new GCSEs next year.

By Nicola Griffiths, Deputy Head.

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