30 September 2015

What Went Well - Foundation GCSE

I know I said that my next post would be about A level teaching, but circumstances at work this week have changed my blogging plans. I'm a very reflective person, always thinking about what went well and what I could have done better, and the time has come - prematurely - to reflect on my first attempt at teaching Foundation GCSE in Year 11. I hadn't expected to write this post until next June, but we're four weeks into the new school year and I've just been reallocated to another Year 11 class.

In June I started working at a boys' comprehensive school which I like very much. It was a big change for me because I'd only ever worked at a girls' grammar school. I'd never taught a student with a target GCSE grade lower than an A. When I got my timetable in July I found out I'd be teaching a class of low attaining Year 11s this year. I was looking forward to the challenge and determined to do a good job so I turned to Twitter for advice. I was inundated with amazing ideas and wrote a post Words of Wisdom: Teaching Foundation GCSE which has been read by around 4,000 people. Many teachers taking on Foundation GCSE classes for the first time have told me that this post was helpful, so writing it was worth the effort.
Building Relationships
On 4th September I met my new class of eight students. In this particular group, unlike many other groups of low attainers, behaviour wasn't an issue. The main challenges for me were a) how to explain the maths  b) how to get them to retain the maths  c) how to get them to focus on the maths.

Building relationships was key. I was struck by the advice Bodil gave me: "Your sales pitch is that it's 'us against the exam ... we can beat this'". This is partly what inspired me to make the expectations video below. I showed this video in the first lesson of the year and it seemed to make an impact. I emphasised the importance of maths GCSE and reassured them that I'd do everything I could to help them achieve it. They were fairly positive and keen to get started (and particularly excited at the prospect of tea and biscuits on Fridays - thanks to Katie and Kim for that idea). It was a good start.

I was told to use folders instead of exercise books and was given document wallets like this:
I decided this wasn't a good way to organise a whole year of learning. Instead I bought some ring binders and file dividers (much to my husband's disapproval because it came out of my own money!). In the first lesson I had the boys write on the file divider tabs - classwork, homework, skill checks, memory, exam papers. This helped them to understand what to expect from maths this year and made it clear how to organise their work. I hoped that this neat and structured approach would encourage them to take more pride in their work than keeping loose papers in a document wallet.

I decided that I'd try to prepare a study pack for each lesson. The packs were written to follow the structure of the lesson - some sections were for taking notes, others were for independent practice. If you'd like to see an example, here's the study pack from my first lesson of the year. The idea was that the classwork section of their folder would be full of well organised and structured notes and practice.

Topics and Activities
I found it hard to choose which topics to teach. My students' basic maths skills were lacking so it seemed wrong to do anything other than practise basic skills, but I felt that I'd lose them if I kept doing arithmetic. In four weeks we covered reading scales, rounding, Venn Diagrams, units, bus and train timetables, symmetry, two way tables, calculator skills and coordinates... I was trying to figure out what worked and what they knew, but my lessons all felt very random and disjointed so this is definitely something I'd think about more carefully next time. I should have chosen one or two key areas to focus on.

One particularly successful lesson was on decimal addition and subtraction - we used two interactive tasks from MathsPad - six out of eight boys in the class were happy to come up to the interactive whiteboard and take a turn at these, which was lovely.
When we did Venn Diagrams, I told them all about John Venn. In my lesson on primes I told them about perfect numbers. When we did timetables we looked at planning a journey online. When we did measurements, we talked about root words like cent (How many cents in a dollar? How many centimetres in a metre?). These aspects of my lessons felt particularly important - just because these students struggle with maths, there's no need to deprive them of wider knowledge.
One thing that particularly surprised and worried me was how hard my students found it to calculate times. For example, I told them that I left the house at 4.35pm and arrived at my destination at 6.15pm - they really struggled to figure out how long my journey had been.

Qualification Suitability
I had intended to use the excellent Corbettmaths 5-a-day but found that the Foundation 5-a-days were too hard for this group - the Numeracy 5-a-days were more suitable, but there was still a lot on them that these boys couldn't do. I found the same with other Foundation GCSE resources, such as the excellent weekly tests from MathsBox. I started to wonder if Foundation GCSE was too hard for these students - what's the point in sitting an exam if you've only learnt a small fraction of the content? I gave them a Foundation GCSE paper to try and they could barely get beyond the first question. Perhaps alternative qualifications would be more suitable for these students - but would depriving them of the opportunity to get a GCSE limit their future life opportunities? My school does Linked Pair and I certainly don't think these boys should sit four maths GCSE papers at the end of Year 11 like the rest of their year group. This is definitely something to review. I asked each boy if he had thought about what he'd do next year - four boys hadn't thought about it and assumed they'd return to the school to do A levels, the other four had clearer ideas (they spoke about going to college to do courses such as plumbing and catering).
In other lessons these boys were often given detentions for disruptive behaviour, but in my lessons they were all calm. It felt like a very safe environment. I put this down to two things: 1. the class was very small and all the boys were lovely 2. my manner was calm and relaxed throughout lessons (this is not typical of me at all - I'm normally a whirlwind of stress. It took a lot of careful effort). One of the Learning Support Assistants commented on the calm working environment, which was nice to hear.

Highlights and EBIs
There were a few fantastic moments in my lessons with this class - a highlight was when one boy recited the first ten prime numbers in under three seconds! I will do many things differently next time though, including planning sequences of topics more carefully and doing more research into how to explain basic concepts.

I was just starting to identify what worked well with this class, so it's a shame to lose them (I will miss them), and it's also a shame that the class will no longer exist (there will be 13 boys in the new 'bottom set'). It was all a worthwhile experience though, and I will take on the next challenge (a class of around 30 boys targeting mostly Bs) with high expectations.

Another request for help!
The Year 11 teacher allocations at my school have been changed for various reasons, partly because the leadership team took another look at the end of Year 10 exam results and decided to add an extra maths class for this year group. It's a shame these decisions weren't made in July, because changes to classes one month into a new school year are likely to be detrimental to both students and teachers. My colleagues are all very adaptable and hard working though, so we'll make it work. I hope that analysing the progress and attainment in maths for this year group has raised a whole host of discussion points for the leadership team, including questions relating to the Linked Pair qualification, the timetabling for maths, and schoolwide behaviour for learning.

The school has now introduced a number of maths interventions for this year group and this is where I need help... They want to run after school and Saturday sessions for Year 11, and the question is - what should these sessions involve? I once helped out with Saturday intervention at another school in which students were simply given GCSE papers to do for three hours. It felt like a terrible use of time that would have been better spent teaching. I know that many of my readers are very experienced in running Year 11 intervention and I'd like to know what structures work well. Please tweet me or comment below. Thanks in advance!


  1. This is really interesting - I love your 'Memory King' activity. Thanks!

    1. Thanks! That was Dani Quinn's lovely idea. I planned to do Memory King jousts throughout the year - primes, squares, multiples of 7 etc.

  2. With the bottom sets I have taught in KS4 I have had great success with regular (every lesson - and in intervention sessions if I'd had them) sessions of what I've called BSP (basic skills practice). EVERY lesson they solve an equation, and then do a few other things. Always 3 tasks with a few parts to each one. I write the topics up on the board (important for them to know what the skill is CALLED, not just to be able to do it!) and the questions, let them do them in backs of books (you'd hear a pin drop - and turning of pages as they look at previous BSPs for help) and then go through them when most have finished. Then we count up how many they've got right and talk about where it went wrong and how we will do it next time.
    Topics that come up at least once a week are:equations, index laws, operations on fractions, manipulating topheavy fractions, pythagoras, areas of triangles and parallelograms. Less often but still regularly I do circles and semicircles, perimeters of shapes, standard form conversions, factorisation, mean from a table, nth term, percentages.
    This means they revise all the "bread and butter" (thanks, Mel :)) topics very regularly, and they then have half an hour for new content - longer than that I find is too long and makes maths lessons feel long to them.
    A topic that they find hard in BSP will come back again the next day and the next until they're getting it right.
    My bottom set have just (7 out of 9 of them) passed their GCSE, in Y10. Including one with dyscalculia. The other 2 know they didn't put enough work in. they're all working towards a B now. In Y7 I would never have dreamed of such a thing for this group. One set of parents were so certain their child wouldn't pass they promised her a puppy if she did - I think she's getting it tomorrow - a cockapoo called Dolly.
    If I was doing your intervention I would identify a list of topics like the one above. Always do a BSP of topics you feel they are secure on, then use some time to work on a "new" topic (one from your list you feel they need), which can then come up in a BSP next time.

    Your work in the link is awesome - how do you make it look so professional? I wish I had your IT skills / software!

    And, I see you pay for Maths Pad, and maybe mathsbox? What else is, in your view, worth paying for, and why (next blogpost?)

    I read your blogpost each week like I used to read my comic as a kid - I wait for it to come out and read it that day. I always find it pertinent and helpful and enjoyable to read.

    (I can only do "anonymous" out of that list, but I'm happy to put my name to it!)

    1. Thank you Megan, these ideas are incredibly helpful. I will share them at school. And thank you for your kind words about my work.

      The lovely people at MathsPad give me a free subscription (if they didn't then I would pay for it myself though!). I used to have a Teachit Maths subscription (very good website) and my new school subscribes to MathsBox (yay!). That's it I think (apart from MyMaths, which my school subscribes to but I no longer use). I'm not a fan of paying for resources (eg I wouldn't buy individual resources from TES) but MathsBox, MathsPad and Teachit are all very high quality and good value for money, so schools should subscribe. I'd like to check out JustMaths' resources at some point too.

  3. Hi Jo,

    I'm doing my PGCE this year and find your blog so useful for ideas!

    I just read this post and I was interested in the example study pack for a lesson but the link isn't working anymore. Is there any chance you could please put up a new link or send a copy to me?

    Thank you! :)

    1. Hi. Thanks for the comment, I'm glad it's useful. I've moved that document to google drive and updated the link - hopefully it will work now!

  4. This is something new to try. Foundation GCSE math pupils can make full use of easy old practice papers online and watch a few different useful videos online etc. They can also order helpful supplementary workbooks from Amazon plus even check out some of those handy websites that aim to promote a healthy love of maths. Additionally there are brain training apps and online games that are clearly designed for weaker students. Try also making up oral timed math tests from time to time in order to see what happens. I found that oral ten minute quizzes in each math lesson on easy topics really made a difference, these included things like numbers, shape, money and time. Or I write out a exam question up on the whiteboard which must be answered by all the pupils in their exercise books correctly, quickly and neatly to win a day out or other prize. Themed lessons seem to encourage them further. We did one on Halloween two years ago when all the pupils had to independently calculate the total overall cost of candy canes, write down the number of ghosts seen, and answer similar questions. Workings needed to be shown.

  5. I also found the Corbet 5-a-day foundation to be too difficult for my students to access at first (this actually scared and stressed me out so much at the beginning). Did not know about Maths Box. Will check it out now. Thanks for sharing!