Teaching and assessment for top-end success in new GCSEs

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New GCSEs – via AQA/Edexcel specimen papers

I’ve been looking at the specimen papers for GCSEs in English, Maths and Science to get a feel for the expectations at the top-end.  Although, in theory, schools should have been engaging with these materials for a while, with Year 11s ready to go this May and Year 10s already on the road with Science, I’m sure plenty of teachers still need time to get to grips with the changes.  At this stage there are still lots of unknowns in terms of grades and the way examiners will interpret answers.  The question for teachers is how best to prepare students and what their CPD needs might be in order to do that.

Let’s look at a question from each of the core subjects:  – lots of these issues will apply to other subjects too.



In this question, students are asked to explore learning about magnetic fields applied in the context of a current balance; this links the learning to the concept of moments. It combines various kinds of learning:

  • Recall: knowing the name of the motor effect
  • Basic recall and understanding of how to increase the force on a wire (increase current, strength of magnet). (The thermistor in the circuit appears to be misprint – a variable resistor is more appropriate to vary current – unless it it meant as a detractor.)
  • Knowing that ‘flux density’ is the precise term used for concept of ‘strength’ of the field; confidence with making links between concepts within one question – here,  seeing link to balancing moments of forces either side of a pivot, knowing the equation for calculating moments and being able to use standard form notation.

Success in this question requires secure recall of all the constituent elements – knowing the equations, units, definitions.  Similarly, the mathematical skills of rearranging the equation and substituting numbers in standard form need practice.   For many students, it will be recall testing and practice drills around these basic elements that are most likely to build up their confidence – rather than lots of practice with similar questions.

However, the recall drills won’t be enough. Students need to learn to approach connected questions without being phased.  Significantly, the current balance is not mentioned anywhere in the specification; it’s meant to test students’ capacity to apply learning to new situations.  There’s no question that familiarity with a current balance would help conceptualise the problem. The challenge for teachers is to expose students to as many applications and new contexts as possible so that this is a routine part of the learning process.

The FACE It method, outlined in this post, would support success in this type of question. Facts; Apply in context; Connect to other areas; Exam practice.



This is a very common question type – the six mark answer.  Students will need to know how varying current in the wire leads to vibrations of the cone of the same frequency.  This is a linear set of steps that, in the teaching, should be broken down into learnable, drillable recall exercises.  To secure six marks, it’s no good having a general sense of how a speaker works; students need to practice setting out a complete logical sequence.  Here the speaker is specified as an example in the specification so it’s much more predictable and controllable for teachers.



In question 16a, the key skill is substitution with indices. Understanding of sequences is essentially the context so that students know n=10. Practice with calculators to calculate 2^11 and 2^9 will be important – but this is a highly drillable skill.   In 16b, the sequence reference is actually purely contextual. Students are required to expand brackets and make correct adjustments to the indices.  Practice with expanding brackets involving indices could be done in other contexts as well as in abstract. The key is to convert 4 or 8 into powers of 2 without prompting; that will require specific attention and practice.

Question 28 is classic case of problems that are easier once you label the diagram.  See this post for other examples. Students will know the Pythagoras but the jump here is to say y=2x so the sides of the gradient triangle are x and 2x; students need to confidence to do it. How do you teach this? It’s partly a case of practice with similar questions – from gradient to coordinates for straight lines, blended with Pythagoras – and, more generally, teaching students to label diagrams, to name unknown variables in lots of situations, – to own the problem in that way.

However, confidence with each element – coordinates, gradients and finding any unknown sides with Pythagoras’ theorem – are prerequisites so practice at that level is more important for students yet to master them.   Following the ideas in Daisy Christodoulou’s recent book, it would be better to do lots of formative practice drills around these elements rather than lots of practice of problems like Question 28 until close to the end when the constituent skills have been mastered.

English Literature

As a non-specialist, I might not make much sense here – but let me have a go.

Students have to answer a 30 mark question related to the books or plays they’ve been staying. Here, there’s a choice of Animal Farm questions. I’ve illustrated it with the mark scheme.  Unlike Maths and Science, the range of possible answers is enormous so indicative content is given.  A recent ad hoc twitter survey has shown that many teachers find it difficult or impossible to distinguish consistently between a critical, exploratory, conceptualised response and a thoughtful, developed response – as suggested in the mark scheme.  It’s only possible to understand and teach this via reference to examples.  In this first year of the exam, there aren’t nearly enough around so people find it hard. Pity the poor examiners who have to do this for real; at least teachers only have to use it as a guide.

It seems to me that the sensible way to go is to break this down in the way that Daisy Christodoulou suggests. Some of the knowledge required for good answers can be expressed as a series of basic drillable facts that all students can recall. A good knowledge organiser is essential for that.  At the next level, some of the key ideas and themes can be tested via simple questions or multiple choice – eg ‘which of the following options provides the most accurate description of Napoleon’s character?

After the formative, testable, drillable elements, it’s a case of iterative comparative judgements, shared with students at paragraph level, with only loose reference to the mark scheme.  I can’t see that the generic mark schemes themselves can really help students – although the indicative content would give a good steer.  Which of these three paragraphs is best and why? Now improve your own; then look again. Repeat and refine.  Then at whole essay level, there must be some simple alternative model structures that allow students to plan a response with a chance of being regarded as ‘critical, exploratory and conceptualised’ without being too formulaic. (Multiple iterations at essay level place major workload demands on teachers so these need to be used sparingly.)  Amid all the intangibility, there must be some kind of system students can learn to use to organise their thoughts so it’s not a big mystery.

Ages ago I wrote about the issue of ‘sub-structure’ vs ‘whole essay’ here, using a football team comparison analogy.  That might help. (It might not.)  I also think the FACE It model applies: Students being with key Facts; they Apply in context of the text; they Connect ideas to wider contextual issues surrounding the text and to other texts; they undertake times Exam practice to put it all together.




  1. […] I’ve been looking at the specimen papers for GCSEs in English, Maths and Science to get a feel for the expectations at the top-end.  Although, in theory, schools should have been engaging with these materials for a while, with Year 11s ready to go this May and Year 10s already on the road with Science, … Continue reading →https://teacherhead.com/2017/03/12/teaching-and-assessment-for-top-end-success-in-new-gcses/ […]


  2. In English, we teach students to write PETAL paragraphs as their system. However, the best students break away from it to produce less clunky responses. In this question you need a line of argument based in an understanding of the ideas, perspectives and views of the author and context of the text. In addition there must be developed analysis of langauge, structure and form. You can teach short cuts to some of this, but it is hard to do really well when you are 16 and under pressure of time. I fear many students will prepare paragraphs and write them regardless of what the questions says as a way of coping.

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  3. Anna is completely correct here. A recent article in NATE’s “Teaching English” magazine showed that PEE/acronym based paragraphs make rapid progress initially but can lead to boredom and poor overall essays. Letting students “discover” and work out what an essay should look like eventually lead to more “concept-based” essays which resulted in higher grades. For many students, especially those in KS4, this can represent a shift in mindset.

    I’ve just marked and handed back a set of mock Literature papers for Year 11. Many lacked an overall “concept” and had written a series of PEE paragraphs linked to the question. Tomorrow’s task is to introduce them to a “concept-based” essay. I think this might be the simple structure you’re after Tom… it might not be though. IE: Napoleon is a tyrannical character who attempts to consolidate power through propaganda and fear. Each subsequent paragraph can then seek to “prove” this idea, rather than being a series of independent ideas that all analyse different aspects of his character.

    Tom, you’re definitely right too. They can’t answer a Literature question without having the drillable knowledge about the text. I wonder whether having a few, carefully positioned, iterations of whole essays (which my Year 11 class will do) is more useful than lots of iterated individual paragraphs.

    Interestingly, while students often get to see modeled creative writing, after all that is what we read and study, when was the last time we gave them multiple exemplars of academic writing? Perhaps we begin to expose KS4 to University essays and critical literature, they will be able to pick up the academic language and structures?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Simple question by a non-teacher here, how far does doing repeated drills of questions from past papers work towards a student’s achievement?


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