Teaching for A*s

Screen shot 2013-09-04 at 06.31.21Beyond the very general notion that we should teach as well as we possibly can, are there approaches we can use that help to secure the highest grades at GCSE? I don’t want to suggest that there are any simple tricks or quick wins or that it is possible or wise for us to expect ever more A* grades. However, getting A*s is something we often discuss at KEGS.

Perhaps it is better to think of it differently, working on the assumption that only a certain proportion of students will be awarded A*s across a national exam cohort. The question then becomes: how can we prepare our students so that they have the best chance of being in that number? This leads us to the brutally simple answer: They need to get as close to full marks as possible – which isn’t as obvious as it sounds.

From conversations with colleagues and my experience as a teacher (and more recently as a parent) I do think that there are some common features of successful approaches to securing the highest grades at GCSEs; to getting close to full marks. These can be described under the following headings:

  1. Expectations and Drive
  2. Timing and sequencing of the course
  3. Acceleration through depth, not speed
  4. Relating the learning to the exam requirements
  5. Facilitating independent study

There is also a sting in the tail.

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

1. Expectations and Drive

Students and teachers need to be clear that securing an A* is an explicit goal; this is the target, not just a wild dream or vague hope. This can all be part of a no-holds-barred, ‘teach to the top’ culture, where, because of the need for full marks, mediocre, incomplete work or poorly expressed answers aren’t ever good enough. Aiming for A*s give you a reason to set ferociously high expectations for every piece of work you set.

There is the risk that emphasising A*s diminishes the success of gaining an A but it pays to take that risk. In doing so, a narrowly missed A* falls to an A which is a pretty soft landing – an A is a really good grade; far better than missing an A altogether by aiming too low or too half-heartedly. The drive is needed to fire students up with this goal continually throughout the course; it’s no good just turning it on towards the end.

2. Timing and sequencing of the course

The best chance of success comes from securing knowledge and understanding across the entire specification. It’s vital for long term planning to ensure that the course content can be taught in plenty of time to allow for consolidation and revision before the exam. It’s then also vital that medium and short term planning picks up all the micro details of the specification, so no stone is left unturned and no student risks being faced with a question that they only touched on fleetingly, many months ago. Any coursework elements should only be give time in proportion to their value… no more. We’ve see big gains in practical subjects through tightening deadline management with coursework and portfolios

3. Acceleration through depth, not speed

Generally, early entry is not going to give students the best chance of success at A*. If your students need a motivating effect through acceleration, go beyond the syllabus, dip into A Level and bring in other ideas and texts. But take the exam at the last possible opportunity, when they have maximum maturity. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions to this.. but too often, early entry pulls down the top end. There is also the issue of confidence-building. My daugther just took Maths at the end of Year 10. She got an A*. Yippee! But, she never once felt confident about it… but would have next year. Was it worth it? Even though I’m delighted that she managed it, I don’t think so.

4. Relating the learning to the exam requirements: Practise, practise, practise.

This is the key pedagogical task. At every opportunity, however far you go off piste with the inspiration and engagement on full-blast, you also need to tie down the learning to what is required for the exam. So, this means talking about full marks in every context:

Full marks on a two mark question; you can’t just write down one word or idea…demand full sentence answers with explanations, hitting the number of marks for each question.

Full marks on five or six mark question: what is the structure of good answers; what do exemplars look like? So, in physics, we’ve learned about transformers, now write a six mark answer that explains how one works. In Geography, we’ve got a six mark answer to produce explaining the pros and cons of a particular flood defense system. Model it, rehearse it, give feedback, practise it. Over and over again for every topic.

Full marks on essays. This is much harder but again, there should be exemplars ready to use continually. Break it down into a structure that can be practised and get students to be familiar with A* examples. Great discussion about Act II, Scene1, now..give me an A* paragraph: what distinguishes that from an A paragraph? Make that seem clear and predictable and reproducible.

In Maths, it is about making sure surds, algebraic fractions, solving quadratics by completing the square and the sine and cosine rule are fully rehearsed with tons of practice. ie all the A* topics: the harder material is familiar and students have plenty of experience of doing perfect answers.

Feedback is vital in this process. Time pressure often means that students need to know how to self assess wherever possible but you must also focus on giving sharp feedback on the A* threshold issues ..throughout the course, as well as on past papers.

5. Facilitating independent study

A* students are likely to be reasonably keen to study in their own time. And if they’re not, they should be and this needs to be made easy for them. For this to be productive, they need to know the plan for the course, have access to resources that explain what is needed for an A*, access to exemplars and access to notes or information that they can refer to beyond the classroom. It is very hard to get a lot of A*s from students who rely on their teacher for everything; it should almost be possible for them to get the A* by reading and practising without any help from you at all. My daughter spent hours on maths leading up to her exam: it worked because the teacher had provided her with the tools to do it.

In summary, it is a combination of factors. In the end, getting A*s is chiefly about full coverage of the course in detail and tons of practice.

Now, here comes the sting in the tail:

A*s at GCSE are no guarantee of success at A level. Statistically, there may be a strong general trend linking outcomes, but it is quite possible for a student to get a stack of A*s at GCSE then to find A levels incredibly hard. At KEGS we see this a lot. One reason worth considering is that the very skills that lead to success at GCSE do not work at A level; the focus on coverage and rehearsing and practicing answers to reasonably predictable questions doesn’t carry through. Students need to be able to be much more responsive, be better at solving unfamiliar problems and be able to use their knowledge in ways they’ve never met previously.

It can come as a shock and disappointment to a student who has slogged and swotted their way to A*s at GCSE to find that A levels don’t come so easy. Not many students can swot their way to As at A level..it takes a different level of intellectual commitment and endeavour.

So.. this raises another question. Should teaching for success at A level be in our minds when we’re teaching at GCSE? Are we content to grind out the repetition and practice, knowing that an A level approach needs to be more dynamic and unpredictable? In my view, if we are aiming beyond GCSE, we need to give 3 and 5 above maximum emphasis during the GCSE years…so that spoon-dependency isn’t something we’re building-in in the process.


  1. I think that teaching for independent learning is good preparation for A level, and so could be a good target for all potential A and A* students, it might even increase there chances of topping out at GCSE?


  2. I wonder how many really bright kids are marking time in Year 11 trying to refine stuff for an A* when they could just be learning more and better stuff eg by starting a level 3 course or spending the time on something entirely new like starting their own business. After all Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg all dropped out of Harvard and so they probably decided learning more in the outside world was a bit more useful to them than ploughing onward to a PhD which probably all three could have breezed.


  3. Very timely post Tom. I like the idea that a rising tide lift all ships and that aiming for the top helps all students to achieve. I agree with your caveats and maybe we could if we were brave enough enter the very able students for less GCSE’s and give them the opportunity to go off piste a bit without having to produce a certificate at the end of it. We are trying to do this with an enrichment block in our three year key stage 4 that includes first aid , cookery . ThInking skills and a higher project ( the equivalent of the extended project at KS 4) If I am honest it is a bit hit and miss at the moment because our students and teachers are so conditioned to teaching a subject with exams and lots of assessment. I want to persevere with it because I think the students will draw on this in the future.


    • Why do we assume that assessment has to be so restrictive? It doesn’t have to be, it’s simply the stereotypical and highly politicised assessment methods that are employed is GCSE and A level that are like that. Rewarding, recognising and celebrating achievement implies assessment. Rewarding, recognising and celebrating achievement are good things, let’s not marginalise them because the current regime is not fit for purpose. Btw, your enrichment block sounds in principle like the honours section of the ModBac.


      • Agree Ian you are absolutely right . Trying to get my teachers out of the silos and recapture learning from the shackles of examinations !


  4. […] Failure Whether you’ve failed to get an even bake, you’ve burned your biscuits or, God forbid, you’ve ended up with a soggy bottom, even the best Bake Off contestants will come a cropper. I asked my friend who works on the show whether some challenges are set knowing that even the majority, including the best will fail. Her response was interesting: “Yes. Because it’s about getting the level of difficulty well balanced – to differentiate the good from the less good. If they could all achieve the task you wouldn’t be able to tell who was better and who should be sent home that week.” As teachers it is natural that we want all our students to achieve. We don’t want any to fail and get ‘sent home’. However, as professionals we don’t want to achieve this by dumbing down. The skill, as in the show above, is getting the level of difficulty well balanced. Tom Sherrington has just this week blogged about this in terms of how to achieve A* at GCSE. […]


  5. Great blog! Another thing that works is teaching students the language of the mark scheme, ‘perceptive’, ‘discriminating’ etc. They can then assess and redraft their practice answers to A* standard, with real understanding of what they need to achieve it.


  6. Thanks for the blog, Tom.

    From my experience of teaching in different schools, in those where the vast majority of Year 11 are likely to go on to A level you DO teach GCSE with A level in mind. We switched to IGCSE Science in the school where I was a head several years ago, partly because the science teachers felt (and I respected their professional expertise and judgement) that IGCSE would be a better preparation for A level and degree level science, and so many students there did go on to take science A levels/degrees. It didn’t mean that those who weren’t planning on this route weren’t important; they just needed different support/challenge.

    Also agree with the issue of those who manage to achieve A* at GCSE thinking that A level will be a slam dunk and then finding the transition really tough. Again, teachers needed to tune in to what individual students needed, get the support/challenge balance right to help them choose the right subjects and then achieve the very best they could.


  7. If A* GCSE candidates find A level transition really tough, it seems to suggest that the design of the national academic exam system is fundamentally flawed. The transition from L1 to L2 to L3 and beyond should be smooth if the L2 and L3 qualifications have been designed properly to support progression.


  8. This sounds very much like teaching to the test. It doesn’t prepare students for innovative problem solving at A level. This leads to ask whether we comprise students results for the short term to ensure success at A-level while they take the time learn the approach for successful independent learning


    • That’s the dilemma. To some extent you do need to teach students directly to pass the test. The trick is to make that process part of a wider educational experience. It is still in there though. Teaching to the test is only really a problem if that is all you do.


      • The snag is that if the objective is to optimise the test score anything else is an opportunity cost. Why does Bradley Wiggins win tours? Because he is 100% focussed on that goal. He’s not interested in BMX, playing rugby, or swimming the channel. He’s excellent at achieving one goal *because* he doesn’t get side-tracked. Unfortunately a general education to prepare people for life is much more diverse than a focus on passing exams but you would think that A*s rather than straight As somehow magically makes a more successful individual. I don’t have specific evidence but I suspect beyond a basic threshold there is a law of diminishing returns so a lot of our brightest kids time is being wasted. After all if academic excellence as measured in exams = success, how come university professors aren’t the highest paid members of society? The current system is highly against enterprise and risk. It is highly pro conformity and channelling the brightest kids into the professions and working for large bureaucracies when the nation’s wealth is generally dependent on the small businesses that employ > 50% of the workforce. We are diverting the talent away from innovation into a safe 9-5 mentality. Ok, just an observation because I doubt there is very much that can be done about it while the current rewards for those running the system are all geared to teaching to the test to the exclusion of everything else. Maybe some do genuinely teach other than to the test but one thing is for sure they are likely to get lower results. Ask Bradley or any other elite sportsman.


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