The New GCSEs: Bigger and Harder

31 March 2017

Author: Jane Elsworth

When we reach the end of this academic year I will have been a teacher of Geography for twenty years and a Subject Leader for 14 years. In those twenty years I have seen three overhauls of the GCSE curriculum, taught a range of different exam board specifications, from WJEC, OCR B, to Edexcel A and B, and AQA, and I have attempted countless different teaching and learning strategies to try to deliver the best possible student outcomes. This latest tectonic curriculum shift has proved the biggest and most challenging yet.

And yet, the curriculum has always had its challenges. I remember when we were told we had to change from completing the same fieldwork study every year, to having to have a new title and area of study each year! I recall thinking ‘how am I going to manage the planning and work involved in this, how can I still ensure student success?’ However, I have never seen a change to curriculum as significant as the one we are facing now.

The demand in Geography GCSE in all specifications has increased in the following key ways:

1. Numeracy. The sheer increase in numeracy demand, taking A level Maths into GCSE Geography. For example, students are expected to be able to use Spearman’s Rank and inter-quartile ranges when interpreting geographical data
2. Literacy. The increase challenge of reading comprehension – more academic language and more reading. For example, the opening sentences to one case study reads: ‘Urban change can create a number of socio-economic and environmental challenges. Declining industry can lead to the development of brownfield sites, which fall into dereliction.’ The barriers for many students are in clear print.
3. Exam command words. Of course, the challenge of tricky exam questions remains. However, so called ‘named example’ questions in the past have been ‘Describe and explain two different ways that flooding is managed along one river’. (6) In the new curriculum, the rather more challenging command word of ‘assess’ is used instead. This means that the student not only has to work out 2 suitable ways to explain about flood management, but they also have to make a judgement on its strengths and weaknesses.
4. The sheer volume of curriculum content. The curriculum isn’t only harder, it is quite clearly bigger. We have a much wider range of graphical, atlas, cartographic and statistical skills to develop over the course and have three exam papers of content to teach. These exam papers are worth more too: they are now 100% of the course as the 25% controlled assessment component has been dropped.

Now, initially my colleagues and I felt we were facing an uphill battle with the weight of what we had to do to adequately prepare our students to meet these demands. However, after a significant amount of reflection, and as part of my work in the Huntington Research School, we have identified some of the support factors and possible solutions to our issues:
• Numeracy training. A lot of my colleagues haven’t been in teaching for as long as I have and haven’t had to teach many numerical skills to students before. Can we identify what training they need and ensure we support that by using other more experienced or expert colleagues?
• Literacy training. As part of a whole school focus, we need to learn to explicit teach challenging academic vocabulary. For many of us, it will prove a shift in our habits in the classroom, but ultimately an important one. We need to go beyond a simple subject glossary and help students access a wealth of academic language and complex subject terms.
• Co-planning. Across the school we must use only a select range of command words in our exam questions. Can we plan across the curriculum so that we use a shared language and foster a shared understanding of these terms? What about how we teach cross-curricular skills like graph drawing, reading comprehension and note taking?
• Developing a course structure that supports long-term memory retention. There is good evidence out there about interleaving and spacing, using graphic organisers and frequent quizzes to promote memory. Are we planning our courses to include those principles and skills and meaningfully developing them throughout our teaching (right from year 7 in reality) and not just a ‘bolt-on’ for revision?


Jane Elsworth, Assistant Director of Research School

Posted on 31 March 2017
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