Keren Gunn, senior assistant principal for teaching school and staff development at Sir Christopher Hatton Academy, explores the challenges and opportunities of the new top GCSE grade.

Sir Christopher Hatton Academy is an outstanding (Ofsted 2015) mixed comprehensive, the lead sponsor in the Hatton Academies Trust, a teaching school and lead of the Hatton Teaching School Alliance. It achieved its second accreditation with the NACE Challenge Award in 2015, and is working towards its third. 

As we review and renew our practice for all learners, I have been reflecting on what the change to the new 9-1 GCSEs means. What will a grade 9 look like; what are the qualities of “grade 9-ness”? How will we teach it effectively, and will we recognise it when we see it? 

We know that according to Ofqual and the DfE, about 20% of the number of students achieving grade 7 or above will achieve a grade 9, and this means about 2.9% of students who would have got an A* would be getting a grade 9 this time round. 

Opportunities and challenges across the curriculum

We see the new grade 9 as a real opportunity, as well as a challenge. From speaking to middle leaders across the academy, the challenges and the opportunities sound remarkably similar across the subjects. The grade 9 system provides huge opportunities for stretching and challenging students, and could allow for real progression and mastery within the curriculum. There are significant opportunities to exploit creative links with business, industry and higher education, for example in food technology or computing and beyond. 

Examples of the innovation taking place include the use of authentic materials in MFL to ensure the language is of a sufficiently high register; adaptation of teaching methods and materials previously used at A-level; and a significant awareness of the need to explicitly teach higher-level thinking skills. The changes also offer an exciting opportunity to re-shape our Key Stage 3 curriculum to develop learners earlier on.

And the challenges? First, the lack of quality exemplar materials from exam boards to guide on the difference between a grade 8 and 9 – particularly significant in subjects like English where we have long been used to a subjective mark scheme, but equally so in mathematics and science, where there are new uncertainties in how questions are likely to be worded. There is also the challenge of delivering additional knowledge-based requirements, while ensuring the skills needed for sophisticated evaluation and analysis are fully developed. 

Developing “grade 9” qualities and skills 

The very quality of being a grade 9 learner is to be independent, enquiring, analytical, critical – and teachers need to be given the best tools, materials and CPD to ensure they can meet these students’ needs. 

One area I have been working on in my own English teaching is the enhancement of targeted academic writing skills, to develop the quality of expression and lexical choices required at grade 9, as well as building contextual and cultural capital as students explore texts. I’ve also used open investigative approaches to poetry, encouraging learners to explore both creative and analytical responses, as well as more formal analysis. After initial work on the Ted Hughes poem “Bayonet Charge”, one student’s response in a first-person piece of creative writing read:

“As the bullets rained down on us the mud caught my feet and held me there as I stumbled frantically. That tear in my eye was not of bravery or patriotism, but of shock and pain. How could our country do that to us? Why would it push us to pain and anguish? I couldn’t comprehend.”  

She had been given time to explore themes, concepts, attitudes and values, enabling her to form independent ideas about the poem, which she will then be able to translate into more formal academic analysis. 

In realising that the message is about challenge for all, we can maximise the opportunity presented by the new GCSEs and embrace the vision of excellence for all students.  

Keren GunnThis blog post is based on an article first published in the summer 2017 edition of the NACE Insight newsletter, available for all NACE member schools. To view all past editions of Insight, log in to the members’ area of the website.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017