Shifting the curve – what will it take?

(Before reading this, you might also want to read this excellent post by Ben Newmark: which covers some similar issues)

I’ve written a lot in the past about the bell-curve and why it’s an inherent feature of assessment thinking. It’s not a conspiracy; there will always be a distribution of performance and some students will be at the bottom end. (See Understanding Assessment: 20 CPD slides.). The question is how we deal with students at the lower end of the range. I’ve raged about this before here and here, especially after Nicky Morgan reinstated the unnecessary and totally arbitrary pass-fail into our new GCSE grading system when it wasn’t needed – softened by her successor Justine Greening who managed to pull Grade 4 out of the fire.

As these Ofqual charts illustrate, the familiar distribution is ever-present. If you look into each subject’s data in detail – following the link – you find that over 170,000 students in each cohort are getting grades 1-3 in English and Maths. That’s about 30% of each cohort.

We can debate the wider issues of the grading process and the innumerate nonsense of ‘shock, horror, 30% of students are in the bottom 30%’ but I am most interested in exploring the underlying reasons that more students do not pass GCSEs at grade 4 in terms of what they’ve learned. If we look behind the surface meaning of each grade, what is it that we’re expecting them to do that they can’t do? And, most crucially, what would it take for us to get a lot more students to learn what is needed to secure a Grade 4?

To get a flavour of the type of material that students are engaging with, here’s a sample from an OCR English Language paper.

This is just the first paragraph; the candidate got 17/40 for this longer-answer question and a total between 50 and 67 out 160 for the whole exam. That’s a grade 3. The link leads to a discussion of a range of samples. You can see in the sample above that the student, aged 16, can communicate to a degree – it’s not without merit but it’s far from anything sophisticated. For contrast, here’s a candidate that got Grade 5 overall, with 25/40 on this same question:

It’s a subtle point I want to make here: the knowledge in this region of the distribution isn’t trivial; it’s not something you can dismiss – as if just your average young adult could rock up into an exam room unprepared and deliver the goods. But, at the same time, you’d find plenty of examples better than the Grade 3 example in a primary Year 5 class. Students are learning to engage with the same kind of material over several years – and yet they still don’t master it.

Here’s some science. To gain an OCR Combined Science Grade 3-3, students need 109 out of 360 on the Foundation paper. That’s 30%. Here’s a question from 2018 worth 6 marks:

And here’ the examiner’s report: (Levels 1,2,3 are marking levels giving 2, 4 or 6 marks).

This was targeted up to Grade 5. The question proved challenging to most candidates, with very few making clear, detailed judgements about what the graph showed. Most responses achieved Level 1 as they only gave a simple description of what was happening to the temperature during the 3 main sections of the graph. The more able candidates were able to link the constant temperature section of the graph with a change of state taking place for Level 2. A more complete response for Level 3 would also have included either a description of how the rate of temperature decrease varied throughout the graph or a conclusion about the properties of the material.

So – most candidates only scored 1 or 2 out of 6 and yet you’d imagine that the other marks were not much harder to get. If you know how six marks might be awarded for this type of question, you’d imagine it was within reach. And yet… that’s not how students at this level respond. The examiner’s suggestion on the report is: Candidates could benefit from being given graphs of familiar and unfamiliar contexts and then describing and explaining what the graph is showing

In other words, if they had had more practice, they’d have done better. Well.. obviously!

Here’s another – a Foundation question worth 3 marks.

The examiner’s report says: Most candidates attempted this question but a significant proportion did not gain any credit. The question required candidates to identify the measurements required and recall the equation: density = mass / volume. Some candidates gained credit for identifying a measurement or stating the equation but only the higher ability candidates gained full credit.

At this level, let’s take this in…this is expected knowledge for a Foundation paper at GCSE, but a significant proportion did not gain any credit and most could not suggest both the measurements and remember that density = mass/volume.

Why? If we assume they were taught the material, why can’t they do this type of question? Why does this happen? I could find similar questions from any exam. We can look at the questions that Grade 3 students struggle with and consider why students aged 16 can’t do them. (For maths examples, look at another recent post: Falling through the cracks. Karim and the Bus Stop Method.)

Once we look at the detail in this way, we can stop getting bogged down in grade-boundary exam conspiracy talk and focus hard on the substance of the learning. How can we get these students to learn more? Essentially we want to shift the curve… Even if we don’t concern ourselves with the top end for now, we should be talking about shifting the curve for the lower achievers.. making standards higher even if, comparatively, they remain in the lower third. But how?

To achieve this shift, we’d need to identify factors that lead students to find these questions difficult and explore ways to address each one, where that is possible. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it so let’s be realistic about that -it’s not easy and there will be many contributing factors creating a cumulative effect. I could write blog on each factor so this is really a short-form exploration, in no particular order:

Why don’t students get Grade 4?

Student motivation and effort is too low? : This has to be a factor. Students at Grade 3 may not have developed the mental habits needed to think hard every lesson; they might coast along in the flow of lesson activity day after day without making proper connections. They might just perceive the material as irrelevant to them and mentally cast it aside, becoming fatalistic about not understanding it.. that’s just how life is for them. Like a deeply unfit person being asked to run the 1500m – it just seems way too far out of reach… so what’s the point.

The curriculum is inappropriate for the student? : I see this argument being made a lot. I mean -does everyone (anyone?) really need to know that density = mass/volume? Well… yes! I call this ‘wrong mountain’ syndrome. In other words, if we’re struggling to climb this mountain, maybe we should try another mountain. I don’t think this helps at all. We can easily argue that students who can’t get grade 4 are valuable human beings who are just as important as those with grade 9 and should have their achievements recognised – yes of course. But that doesn’t help them climb this particular mountain. We can’t just side-step the learning challenge. The question should not be be ‘what’s the point of learning these things?’ It should be ‘how can we get more students to learn to understand density or how to read a graph?’ But maybe, just maybe…too many people try to sidestep instead of tackling the learning issue head on.

However, where the curriculum might be inappropriate is if there is simply too much in it. There is nothing inherently inappropriate about learning the density equation – except that it might be one of many things too many to learn at the same time. There is already more to learn in the world than any curriculum can contain -we all accept that case. Maybe then, we should be stripping it further back so that we have time and space to teach less material to a deeper level?

‘Teaching to the top’ has gone too far? . I’m someone who has promoted teaching to the top for decades. Why? Because I’ve seen too many high achieving students be systematically under-challenged. It’s no good for them or any class of students if the material is too easy for people. The problem is that down at grade 3/4, the work patently isn’t too easy. Not at all. It’s bloomin’ hard! Those students don’t benefit from ‘raising the bar’ because they can’t get over the bar where it is. They need to work harder practising the lower-end material, not be forced to continually fail with higher-end material. This is where I feel debates about differentiation and setting go awry. In some situations, you do need to tailor the level of scaffolding and practice so that students in the lower third are consolidating, not floundering – all without putting a cap on their expectations. Easier said than done – but has to be done. See Rescuing Differentiation from the Checklist of Bad Practice.

The exam is inherently unfair? We might argue that students write better outside exam conditions; that it’s artificial to write a creative piece for 40 marks in timed conditions; that nobody needs to remember the density equation by heart in real life; that a student might have an intuition for density in a practical setting that isn’t assessed in a written exam. Again, I don’t think this is particularly helpful. I can think of some examples such as instrumental exams where, sure, some people reach high levels of proficiency without ever passing the grade exams. But, in general, I’m deeply sceptical of the argument that students might learn more science, English or maths if we assessed them differently. The grades and award system might look very different – but would they have actually learned more actual content? I doubt it.

Teaching methods have been weak? As I explore in the post Falling through the cracks. Karim and the Bus Stop Method, I do think this has to be a factor we need to face. Some students with the same starting points do much better than others, school to school, class to class. In-school variation is a real phenomenon. In particular, if we think about Karim in Year 5, 7, 9, 11.. struggling to even get grade 3 in maths, I would say he’s likely to have sat in too many lessons where the teaching methods were weak for him. In other words – other students might have been flying, but not him. What if we geared our teaching strategies more firmly towards a ‘nobody left behind’ approach – where instead of being overly excited by the buzz of the top end, we focused on the lower third and their experience? I explore some of this in this post: Five Ways To: Enrich learning for everyone, not the few. I see people celebrating their organic teaching styles with their messy board and discursive dialogic classrooms.. and worry about Karim, sitting there bemused, waiting for the bell.

There are too many external factors beyond our control? There are certainly some factors beyond out control; that’s undoubtedly true.. but it’s basically giving up isn’t it? Yes, we are continually meeting students – right from Reception upwards – where we’re slightly horrified by what they can’t do compared to others, already! But we can’t go back in time and pump students with knowledge and experience that we wished they had; we can only ever start from where we are. However, we can plan a great curriculum, rich in knowledge and experience; we can engage with families; we can change students’ study habits and raise their expectations. If we assume the factors beyond our control are so great that we write students off… that’s unacceptable.

Students have inherent intellectual limits? Isn’t it just the case that the range of outcomes is inherently shaped by the range of IQ? Are we just tinkering in the face of what is inevitable? This is seriously dangerous territory – but I suspect it affects our attitudes all the time. Not everyone can be great at sport, music, dancing… or maths, writing, science and art. Right? Maybe the concept of density is intellectually beyond some people: paper clips sink but giant logs of wood float – but it’s all a bit fuzzy why that might be! If we approach a group of people with the expectation that some of them simply won’t ever get it… do we just assign people into their slots along our curve and leave them there? I think this happens all the time! Who are the students who you mentally place in that ‘difficult’ category and therefore just slightly lower your expectations for them, grateful for anything they give, rather than pushing harder to get them to really understand things properly?

The basics of reading/ numeracy not owned? Reading exam papers of all kinds you are struck by how much reading is involved and how often the maths operations are very simple, once you’ve identified which ones you need. A large part of exams stems from reading and numeracy. Is it possible that students in the lower third are fundamentally struggling with the same issues across the curriculum and yet, no one person sees it as their job to address them? In many schools, the truth is that the number of students who can receive interventions for reading is limited but it could be a good 30% of students who need more support on the mechanics of reading and are not getting it. Even the extent of reading in a typical school day varies hugely from what I see. Too few teachers are trained in teaching reading in a secondary context and it still feels to some people like a bit of an event – ooh look at us doing some reading in our science lessons – rather than this being the daily norm.

Best bets for solutions?

I’ll keep this brief because the post is already longer than planned. It seems to me, we need to think harder about what it might look like if we focused our efforts on the lower third; so that we have them firmly in mind in terms of:

  • the curriculum we plan; less is more; more consolidation and practice; more coherent spiralling back; a better understanding of mastery and maturation and their implications
  • embedding reading in all that we do, teaching it not just doing it
  • the mindsets we adopt: write nobody off, be demanding of effort in practice; climb this mountain, don’t try to sidestep it; assume that the cognitive leaps can be made with persistence.
  • our teaching approaches: inclusive classrooms; inclusive questioning; great modelling and scaffolding; short feedback loops; strongly guided practice and high success rates
  • motivation through success: create an upward spiral of success and motivation and effort, starting with students at the point they are, not where we’d like them to be.

I hope we can get into this debate more – going into the core of how students learn more, away from the noise and distraction that grading and exam debates create. Not easy, but necessary if we’re to shift the curve.


  1. I absolutely agree with what you have written, thank you Tom. Will use this blog to continue thinking planning and improving learning for those who are struggling more; with the exhausting sense of low self esteem which often accompanies this.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Tom,
    As always, an interesting blog. It’s interesting that you reference a year 5 child compared with the year 11 example. My Primary career started in 1971, with classes of round 40 children, no technology nor TAs. We had to use a variation on the integrated day approach, which embedded layers of independence across all subjects. The core focus was always reading, writing and maths.

    It was the 1985-7 National Writing Project that created a focus for looking at the quantity and quality of Primary writing, reducing the former with a focus on fewer extended pieces of writing, with note making, lists or other recording in non-focus subjects. In this way, writing in history, geography, science etc could have a clear writing focus, as well as subject content.

    The 1988 National Curriculum background reading indicated an expectation of a progress ladder; levels, which, in my experience created a further layer of clarity in Primary writing. A regular conversation with Junior or Secondary teachers was the comparison of specific grades. While the subject context/content was often significantly different, the writing or mathematical base should have been acknowledged.

    Which brings me to my main point. Do children really know what’s being expected of them? If teaching is a generic form “teaching to the top”, how do individuals know how to bridge the gap between their current and aspirational performance? Personalisation was feasible in the Primary classroom, given the time with our classes. I have often argued that by day 2 of a school year, Primary teachers will know their classes better than a secondary colleague by half term, in some subjects.

    If, as became the case, the majority of Primary children could have transferred to Secondary with what was a level 4 or better, in reading, writing and maths, their base would have been reasonably solid, since most subjects rely on language skills. Interesting and engaging them into these wider subjects is an essential part of teacher skill, yes, based on knowledge and how to share it; correct vocabulary and register.

    The essence of all this is longitudinal knowledge of children, across a year, between years and between schools; transfer and transition and an acknowledgement of fellow professional judgements. How well do individual teachers really know the children that they teach? SEND to high achievers. The bell curve does exist, but Bridie Raban, around 1985 used the idea of knowing the Bell Curve for each class.

    I’ll stop, because I am seemingly writing a blog…

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks Tom. As ever it comes down to the quality of teaching and those doing it. Good ITE and CPD essential. English governments simply interfere with this process in a simplistic way aimed at scoring points with their more extreme followers. Answer: remove education from politics in England?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks Tom great analysis and evaluation of the problem. I am obviously biased as part of the Lets Think Cognitive Acceleration community but a new push on the pedagogic lessons learned from CASE, CAME and Lets Think programmes is desperately needed in this discourse.

    Liked by 1 person

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