Get The Exam Board In – Leading a Department 5 (Annual)


This is our fifth part of the #LAD blogs, looking at some key ideas, thoughts and/or systems that might be of use to a department lead. This week looks at another annual consideration – one of the areas that once we had discovered and discussed it we make it an annual event every year, getting experts in the exam/specification into our school. I share some of the thoughts, ideas with planning this yearly event.

Each term when we have our data review meetings with SLT. We are often asked, as part of the culture of ‘low threat, high challenge’ (see Mary Myatt’s video below), what has worked well within our subject, what can we take and push with other faculty areas. And the one thing that stands out was when we got an exam board trainer into our school (operating as a consultant not working on behalf of the board) to give us a run down of the most recent set of summer exam results.

Why did we feel we needed a consultant. First of all I am not comfortable with that word. I don’t know why, the idea of someone coming in, who might be a few years removed from the classroom, to tell us how to teach. Maybe there are some biases that I hold that are unfounded. Maybe I’ve had a bad experience in the past; I do remember in my first teaching role, when a consultant came in to deliver some training, to get us ‘warmed up’ at the start, they had us hold hands in threes and we had to keep a balloon from touching the ground without using our hands – truly horrible stuff! As a new school, and without the external pressure of GCSE exams the first few years were spent, as a new head of department, in a department of one, very much in isolation. I would plan the materials, the pupils would let me teach them, assessments were made in house, grade boundaries were not as robust as they could be. As a result when these pupils got their exam results they were distinctly average in terms of the progress the pupils made. My knowledge of the GCSE was limited as I only really engaged with it when the pupils were closer to the exam. I was out of the loop for some years now, due to this building-up of a school and a department.

I remember thinking to myself, who could we get in contact with to come in as an external pair of eyes to see what we do and whether it was fit for purpose. I made a concerted effort not to ask other teachers, or friends I trained with who were in well established and good schools. I wanted someone who worked closely with the board and had an in-depth knowledge as to how papers were made, how they were constructed and quality assured, how grade boundaries were decided upon, how the papers were marked and so on. My first port of call was the exam board website to see what training was available, and one of the first things you notice is the price of them. Sometimes in the region of £200 and even then you have to make your way to the nearest city (might not be so nearby after all) to take part. Some were webinars but I often felt that they lacked the personal touch, the ability to stick a hand in the air and ask a question.

Instead my tactic was this, go online find a course that was run by the board and find the name of the person delivering it, which at the time was part of the training session webpage. I then searched the trainers name on LinkedIn and by repeating this process I was able to reach out and contact them. They didn’t all get back, they didn’t all work independently but we were fortunate that one of the AQA trainers also had their own consultancy business and regularly worked up and down the country for just such consultancy work. 

Some advantages that made this decision to do our own sourcing of trainer included;

The cost – to have the trainer with our science department over the course of an afternoon, some three to four hours was the same as the two hour exam board course. We also had our entire department with us for the session, whereas if it was with the board you had to pay per ticket. Massive savings therefore for this training.

The time – the time implications of getting a member of staff to travel to a main hub city and take part in the training is substantial as well as the fact you are handcuffed by the date that the exam board runs the sessions. With the method we went for, they can fit around us, so you could;

– Run a session during your own department training time, whether that be in school or afterwards.
– Find a slot when you have whole staff CPD, for example at the start of the year or through an in-year INSET day.
– The sessions are fully planned around you so you could potentially have the trainer sit in lessons, work with SLT, talk with heads of department and so on if that worked around your school day.
– It can obviously be at any time of the year, we always hold ours in October or November as it ties in well with our Christmas mock exams and it’s not early into the year where staff are still trying to find their feet. Come Halloween, staff have worked out most of the kinks with their lessons and classes.

Personalised support – one of the greatest strengths of these sessions is how we can tailor it to our needs. In the weeks leading up to our sessions our trainer will contact us and ask us what we want from the session. Obviously they make suggestions and we will normally come to an agreement as to what the session will look like. The reason we take on board their thoughts is because, our trainer in particular, has a team who goes through the papers, mark schemes, examiners reports and trends from the most recent set of summer examinations. Based on this they put together a set of key points that they feel schools would benefit from when they visit. For example, the first session we had was when the new 9-1 GCSEs were to be sat, we used one of the sessions with science leaders to determine how to stream pupils onto tiers and the best way to ensure no pupil was set up to fail – by overachieving on the foundation or under-achieving on the higher paper. As a result we managed to stream pupils incredibly well, with no pupils dropping off the bottom of the higher paper and very few pupils topping out on the lower paper. That first year the exam boards had to make an unprecedented step to add a grade to the higher paper as so many schools got it wrong. Because of our training we didn’t fall into this trap.

Insider information – having contacts within AQA as well as exam markers, writers and other colleagues involved with the entire process, I am assuming that our trainer has access to interesting conversations, thoughts, solutions and barriers that we, as teachers would not be privy to. Allowing them to come in to share their thoughts and expertise gives us an insight into a previously unknown part of education – the link between specification and examination.

The resources – not only do you get the trainer for your x hours in November but you can obviously use this information throughout the year. Being able to revisit, refresh and re-embed the material is a key point. It’s not just about what is said to you on that day before Christmas but how you can then take some of those ideas, build on them, test them, see what works and can be kept and what is awful and needs to be dropped. The files that our trainer produces (slide stacks, example resources, data, yes they are amazing!) are shared in our Google Drive system so that we can use them again within our school but also share them across the trust to the other science departments. I try to share them even with our younger (and also new build) schools so that they don’t fall into the trap that I did when I was building the department from scratch – the trap of being too inward facing and not beginning with the end in mind.