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Kevin Piper

School Improvement Partner

  • Over 30 years experience as a School Leader, Teacher and Trainer for CPD and School improvement
  • Specialises in English and Drama

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GCSEs 2021 – The positives

The 18th of June will soon be upon us. Hopefully, it is starting to become a little clearer as to how we are going to moderate GCSE grades and what kind of evidence we will need to produce. We are already working with a number of schools to help with that moderation process and make sure that robust systems are in place.

As a parent of a GCSE student, and having taught GCSEs, I really do appreciate that you are working incredibly hard to make sure we have appropriate evidence that helps secure the grades our students deserve. I understand that you have been working hard with those students to make sure that they not only get that grade but are prepared for the next stages of their education, or indeed their employment. This has been a really tough year, with a wide variety of challenges for educators, and, arguably, GCSE and A-Level students and their teachers have been not only the most under pressure, but also the most innovative, the most flexible and the most pioneering.

It may not feel like it, but, once the dust settles, once we have a chance to reflect, there may be some positive lessons to take away from all of this. When working with schools, we have seen fantastic teachers who, for example, recognise that there are a wide range of creative ways of obtaining evidence that demonstrate students’ understanding of the key concepts, other than just written work. Even if this is not always evidence that would be accepted in this current round of GCSEs, allowing students to express their understanding in alternative ways will actually help their written work or exam skills if and when required. Already, many teachers are using these approaches to adapt their curriculums for next year.

Despite the pressures and hard work involved, the opportunity to share what we have been doing with others, to look at how others have been teaching your subject, to use comparison marking, to see the evidence they have used and get an in-depth understanding of what learning looks like at different levels – all this will stand us in good stead for the future.

Through the discussions we have had with schools, and with individual teachers, we have certainly seen a rise in awareness of what outstanding learning means and what it looks like to get better in a particular subject. Discussions around the difference between substantive knowledge, disciplinary knowledge and skills, and ways of developing confidence and fluency in the underlying concepts have been invaluable. So what are some of the ways in which teachers have adapted this year? Here are some examples of positive messages, opportunities and ideas that teachers have discovered this year:

Breaking down the assessment objectives

This can be a fantastic way of learning more about the potential breadth of any specification as well as depth, allowing us to create this broad and balanced curriculum that hopefully will inspire our learners. By breaking down assessment objectives, not only do we make any assessment process far more transparent for the learners but we also demonstrate the importance of what I call ‘hinterland’ – the broader aspects of the curriculum; the areas learners may never have considered important or relevant but that aid understanding and provides activities that are necessary to support the core learning


Some colleagues have admitted that the moderation process has raised awareness of unconscious and conscious bias and has made them more aware of inclusion and diversity, particularly looking at issues around maintaining objectivity as well as an awareness of the assumptions we may make about how students respond to tasks and to the assessment process.

It may even be that, as a result of all this hard work, students themselves begin to realise that there is more than one way of answering a question, submitting evidence and therefore become more confident learners. Through the evidence-gathering process, learners themselves begin to understand more about how to express their learning and appreciate that they will be both listened to and valued

Ready-made CPD

Schools are using this process as an opportunity for CPD: to upskill their staff in the standards that they are looking for, as well as investigating the pedagogy that has allowed them still to teach effectively over the past year. It will soon be time to decide how much of what we have learnt we will keep for next year.

A new curriculum?

Many teachers have mentioned how they have become more aware of the gaps in learners’ knowledge and how this will affect their curriculum in the following years; the realisation that they need to spend longer on a particular area or the need to re-sequence their curriculum to build learners’ understanding and confidence. There have been, for example, some topics that students have clearly grasped quite quickly, whereas other areas needed far more work and discussion

Flipped learning

This ‘spiky’ learning has sometimes manifested itself within the context of flipped learning, as students working from home have had to, at least partly, work independently and do their own research. Certain topics have allowed that to happen more easily than others and teachers are therefore adapting their curriculum to reflect on the value of what has to be taught in the classroom and what can be learned independently.


We wish you well in the build-up to the submission of grades in June. Please always remember that if you are unclear about something or are struggling with something, the chances are that there are many more teachers who are in the same boat. As we often say to children, there are no daft questions and, as OFQUAL themselves have recommended, use this time to engage in dialogue with colleagues, with SENCOs and with other schools and use what we learn to make our curriculum even more effective.