School Blog


Teacher Assessed Grades – where next for public examinations?

I have just this week received notification that our paperwork for the Teacher Assessed Grades (TAG) process has been accepted by the JCQ (Joint Council for Qualifications). For the teachers and administrators in school whose waking hours in the last few months have seemingly been dominated by the tangle of new arrangements, this is an important step, if not a champagne moment. I will be writing soon to the students, parents and guardians of Year 11 and Year 13 to give more information about what this entails for them, in the lead up to the results days on 10 and 12 August.

That we should carry out diligently the myriad procedures involved in the TAG process is clearly an important part of ensuring we get the grading right for our students. We need to do this not simply because they deserve to achieve the best possible outcomes as evidenced by their achievements over the last two years, but also because they have been impacted personally and from an educational perspective in ways that cannot be understated. Our priority is to ensure the path ahead is as smooth as it can be under the circumstances for every student in this situation. We also need to plan further ahead to consider how to protect and support students in the current Year 10 (Lower Fifth) and Year 12 (6.1) cohorts.

Indeed, this is becoming a theme for wider discussion nationally, and is precipitating a debate on the viability of certain exam types, most notably GCSE. AQA head Colin Hughes has said this week: “There is no leap back to normality in 2022 or, for that matter, arguably in 2023 […] I think we have to recognise the continuing impact of the pandemic on the entire generation, and what can we do.” A board member of Ofqual, Ian Bauckham, has gone further and noted that students taking A Levels in 2022 will be the first not to have taken formal exams at age 16. This, in his view, is an opportunity to think about the abolition of formal assessments at this point, as “nobody will be relatively disadvantaged compared with others by not having taken GCSEs before”.

The debate about the relative value of maintaining formal assessments at age 16 is not new, nor is it specifically related to the pandemic. The arguments in favour of scrapping GCSEs are compelling, to the extent that there are few developed countries that split the education experience of 14-19 year olds in the way we do in the UK. In a recent study, the independent think tank EDSK (which stands for ‘Education and Skills’) reported that making students sit as many as 30 hours of high-stakes tests when they had a further 2 years of compulsory schooling ahead was “disproportionate and unnecessary”. In addition, the approach wastes significant amounts of time in the summer of the GCSE year. Students effectively take an extended summer break before starting completely new courses in the autumn. 

GDST schools are excellently resourced to support learners over this enforced break. We run Limitless Learning courses and bridging modules to help students to keep learning and experimenting with new ideas before joining Sixth Form. Sadly though, not all schools can provide such a service and many students lose focus and momentum at this vital stage. Naturally, the best approach would be to maintain a seamless process of learning across the secondary age range. This would give the teachers who know their students best the time and opportunities to adapt programmes of study dynamically, and to support individuals to gain deeper understanding, skills and knowledge in the areas that most inspire them. 

Meanwhile, at Northampton High and in the wider GDST network, exams officers and academic staff will remain awake to any necessary technical processes over the coming months, while continuing to develop the excellent range of teaching and learning opportunities available. Thanks to this network of dedicated staff, I have no doubt that our students will be able to hold their heads high on the results days in August, and move on to the next stage of education knowing their efforts have been properly recognised.


Hope and Change


Stephen Lawrence was born in September 1974, just three weeks after I was born and I am writing this piece on the 28th Anniversary of his death.  For many reading this piece, the name Stephen Lawrence, needs no further explanation or clarification.  Indeed, the same is true for many of our pupils. But, for others, 28 years ago is well beyond a lifetime for them which  puts the events of 1993 in the category of ‘history’ and as with many horrific acts of history, should we forget them we are doomed to repeat them.   To illustrate this, let me take you back to 17 May 1959.  On that night, 32 year old Kelso Cochraine, a carpenter originally from Antigua was walking home through Notting Hill when he was attacked and killed by a gang of white youths. His murder was never solved and with hauntingly similar reports as Stephen’s death, the police investigation was considered highly flawed.  The public outcry led to commemorative events which ultimately led to the beginning of the Notting Hill Carnival.  I had not heard of Kelso Cochraine until just a few weeks ago when I heard a book review of Murder in Notting Hill (Mark Olden, 2011) on the radio one evening after work.  The impact I felt from hearing the book review led me to stop the car as soon as I could and order the book from Amazon there and then before I could forget. And really, we must not forget. That despite the outcry, despite the inquiries, 40 years later not so far away in another London street another young black man was killed by a gang of white men and the same mistakes were made. 

Our Senior School assembly this week was carefully curated and presented by Miss Robinson and gave a sensitive and informed look at the death of Stephen Lawrence, the failures that led to his killers going free for so long and the legacy of hope and change that his parents and family have chosen to promote.  Stephen Lawrence Day is now held on 22 April each year, promoted by the Stephen Lawrence Foundation set up by his grieving parents.  Their determination to remember their son in a positive way, when it would have been so much easier to eschew bitterness, has led to seismic changes in institutions across the UK. 

But finally, only in 2020, has the racism and bias (unconscious or otherwise) that is inherent in so many parts of society finally been spoken about in ways that can not be ignored any more. Black Lives Matter and the social and media movement around it has uncovered truths which should not have remained invisible and yet toxic for so many years. And it is so much harder to ignore an issue that is under such a spotlight.

Alongside her assembly, which we are delighted to share with you here, Miss Robinson has been promoting a range of ways in which our school community can make the change 

Using the #ChallengeAccepted tag, we asked the school community to join the wider community and do something simple to help others and then pass it on.  This could be through an act of kindness, a creative expression of what ‘living your best life’ looks like for you or sharing the learning about Stephen’s story.  Please take the time to talk about Stephen’s story with your daughter over the coming days as a way to ensure his story is never forgotten and his legacy of hope and change continues.


Educate girls – save the planet

Do you remember a TV series from about 15 years ago called Heroes? The catchphrase was ‘save the cheerleader, save the world’.

Well, my catchphrase is ‘educate the girl, save the world’.

It’s more than a catchphrase, though – it’s real.

A recent report from Project Drawdown[1] said that one of the most important keys to tackling climate change is “access to … high-quality, inclusive education”.

Worldwide, “[w]omen with more years of education have fewer and healthier children… [they] realize higher wages and greater upward mobility, contributing to economic growth. Their rates of maternal mortality drop, as do mortality rates of their babies. They are less likely to marry as children or against their will. They have lower incidence of HIV/AIDS and malaria. Their agricultural plots are more productive and their families better nourished.”

This is why I’m focussed on the transformative power of girls’ education – both in developing nations and here in the UK.

In the UK, we’re still far from being a fair place for women and girls – and it looks like the pandemic has halted and even reversed some of the progress we have been making. The horrific toll of domestic abuse on women has been made worse by lockdown, as women feel they have no escape from their abusers. When schools are closed, mixed-sex couples often decide it’s more affordable for the lower earner (usually the woman, thanks to the gender pay gap) to sacrifice her career, so childcare and home education falls disproportionally on mothers rather than fathers. Globally, women’s job losses due to Covid-19 are 1.8 times greater than men’s[2] – so much so that some commentators are calling this a she-cession[3] to set it apart from previous recessions.

Yet where are the women making the decisions for England?

Politicians have repeatedly ignored and neglected the differential impact of their policies on women – so much so that Caroline Nokes, Chair of the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee, described it as “institutional thoughtlessness”.[4]

It’s timely that the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is ‘choose to challenge’. How do we choose to challenge this thoughtlessness?

It’s a thoughtlessness that pervades artificial intelligence too. AI ‘learns’ from the information available to it, and if that information is biased or incomplete, or treats men as the ‘default’ sex, then poorly written algorithms can reflect and amplify those biases back at us.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that AI is going to have more and more influence over how we work and how we live. We also know that we cannot leave the design of the future to men alone, women have to be designing the future alongside them – and we have to inspire girls to be inspired by it.

Of all the possible investments we can make in the future, it’s probably no surprise that I think education must be the priority. GDST Sixth Form students think so, too. When we recently asked them in a survey what they think will make the most difference in making a more equal world for women and men, nearly 50% said women in leadership positions. And how do women take up pole position in public life? Through education – and nearly 30% of GDST students in the same survey said education was first and foremost the route to gender equality.

Through education, we can help young people – boys and girls – grow up into confident, committed, determined individuals, ready to tackle injustice, build a more equitable society, and remake the world as a better place for all.

Cheryl Giovannoni
Chief Executive Officer






Work – but not as we know it

There is nothing like the perfect storm of a pandemic and a Brexit to make one reassess many things, not least of which, since enforced home-working has become part of so many workplaces, is the world of employment.

Around 18 months ago, I heard Dainel Susskind, co-author of A World Without Work (2020), speak at the GDST summit.  I have since heard him ‘in conversation’ at the How To Academy and purchased the aforementioned book.  The premise of his book is that, whilst there have been fears of a dystopian future where machines take over the world ever since the industrial revolution, it is here and now that technology has developed to a stage where this really is a possibility. Or at least, it is highly possible that a range of professions could be fundamentally and irrevocably changed by developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI). 

In my opinion, Susskind makes a compelling case for a world without work; after all there are already algorithms in use that can determine whether a person in court is guilty, with 90% accuracy, which is significantly higher than the average human who manages 54% accuracy. 

Schwab (2017) calls this age ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’.  In short, this suggests that we have moved well beyond the first Industrial Revolution where machinery, operated by humans, made manufacturing and production lines quicker and more efficient to a time when AI can simply complete jobs without human interaction.  Of course, this is not entirely true, since someone has to program the machine to perform tasks in the first place, and machine learning is still a developing concept.

Depending on your opinion about technology and the workplace of the 21st century, the idea of a world without work could be a blessing or a concern.  What is unarguable is that when when we tell our students that we are preparing them for jobs that have not even been created, we should not underestimate the uncertainty that concept could invoke. What is the point in studying to be a doctor when robots can be programmed with astonishing accuracy to carry out surgery and can work for longer even than a junior doctor.  Or when systems such as NHS 111 and online diagnosis services use intelligent systems to make a relatively accurate diagnosis of simple conditions. Teaching, legal professions, design, architecture, engineering, surveying are just a few of the many professions where AI is increasingly able to replace a significant proportion of the work involved.

My personal take on this is not that our children face a future world without employment or even without work in the aforementioned professions, but that the skill set needed and the work undertaken will be different; it will be work that only humans can carry out.  The comfort that students can take in this less certain future, is that the world of secondary education is opening its heart and mind to the importance of developing skills rather than merely covering content.  If an adult knows how to collaborate efficiently with colleagues, make efficient use of workplace technology, solve problems, think strategically and develop agile working practices, they will undoubtedly be well placed to be the future leaders as well as the future professionals.

Mrs O’Doherty
Deputy Head Pastoral

SUSSKIND, Daniel (2020) A world without work. London: Allen Lane
SCHWAB, Klaus (2017) The Fourth Industrial Revolution. London: Penguin Random House


Edtech – Technology and Collaboration

As in the song, we might say that collaboration and education go together like a horse and carriage. However, while the latter pair are more or less entrenched in an analogue past, collaborative learning has found a new lease of life through the power of technology, or EdTech. Perhaps a better analogy now would be a battery and an electric car!

A little over 18 months ago we launched the ‘Digacy’ programme at Northampton High. Digacy stands for ­‘Digital Literacy’ but aims to go further, with the vision of bringing all things technological together under one banner, to help students develop future skills and to bring transformative approaches to teaching and learning. Little did we know that Covid-19 would push technology even further to the forefront of our thinking, giving us an unprecedented testbed for cloud-computing platforms across the school.

Using technology to support learning helps not just to deliver content in more adventurous and supportive formats, but, more importantly, allows students and teachers to connect with each other within and beyond the confines of the conventional classroom. Our school 1 to 1 device policy enables teachers to ‘break down’ the traditional home/school barriers, by sharing content before the lesson begins and allowing students to ‘preload’ with key information. It also encourages students to engage in shared working and they benefit from detailed feedback dialogue, which encourages continual improvement in skills and understanding.

The Digacy programme works from core principles, including online safety, computational thinking and the creation of content, to ensure that pupils have the adaptability they will need in the future. Digital tools like mentimeter, padlet, kahoot, flipgrid, quizlet, newsela, pobble and readtheory are amongst the many available that help teachers to support pupils individually, inspire curiosity and create inquisitive learners. All students curate their achievements online via a self-made website which we call the ‘360-degree Me ePortfolio’. This gives them the skills to manage their digital footprints positively, with an eye for their future employability. As a backbone to this, our shared platforms allow us to offer seamless learning approaches, meaning all pupils have access to the materials they need, along with their teachers’ expert advice.

As a result, both in lockdown and while just some students have been working from home, we have been able to prioritise live lessons via video to ensure as smooth a connection as possible.  Beyond Northampton High School itself, we are proud members of the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST), a group of 25 schools which, like us, are centres of excellence in the teaching of girls. Our home schooling process, called Guided Home Learning, has thrived because of our access to GDST-wide online enrichment programmes, and the pedagogical support of many hundreds of like-minded colleagues around the country. In addition, our resident expert Consultant Teacher has also worked to develop our feedback methodologies, with much now delivered orally to students via technology.

The standing of computer science as an academic discipline has been given a boost in recent years. Famously, Bill Gates once criticised the UK for concentrating too much on the applications of technology and not the deeper understanding of coding and algorithms that is essential for developing the next generation of technical innovators. We took the step of incorporating Computing as a subject into Mathematics and giving it dedicated curriculum time from the youngest year groups in our Junior School. This has meant that computational thinking has been placed at the heart of the curriculum and has led to healthy uptake at public exams in the subject itself.

However, the belief that, as digital natives, our young people should be able to pick up IT creation skills as easily as learning a new computer game, ignores the fact that without clear guidance they will generally only approach this when they have to. As a result they may lack standard digital competencies, such as formatting documents, ordering filing systems, using spreadsheets, and creating intuitive presentations and websites. At Northampton High, the Digacy programme also acts as a safety net to ensure that these functional IT capabilities are not lost. All pupils develop these skills at the most suitable time in their education, and in the most suitable academic discipline. For example, the website skills learned in the 360-degree Me ePortfolio, are developed in Humanities lessons as a key part of our transferable skills agenda.

EdTech is with us to stay and we are confident it will help our pupils to thrive in the future, but technology is not an answer in itself. We may be moving into a world of self-driving cars and intelligent fridges, but some things will never change. It is the human connection transcending the digital, the understanding, guidance and perseverance of our teachers, that will allow students to find their individual paths in this changing world.

Henry Rickman
Deputy Head Academic


Ceramics at Northampton High School

Clay is an exciting medium and never fails to intrigue and excite children of all ages. I love to see faces light up when young people are handed a block of stoneware at the beginning of a project, and see the amazement when you simply slice a block with cut-off wire to reveal that flat, smooth clean edge.

I am lucky; I started my teaching career in 1994 with Glyn Thomas at Kenton School, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where ceramics was strong and celebrated. Glyn and his team have sent many excellent ceramicists onto higher education, including Stuart Carey, but over the years we have seen how the Arts in schools, particularly traditional crafts, have been in decline. I hear stories of whole ceramics departments shutting down due to the scale, space and running costs needed to sustain courses in universities and colleges; not to mention the expertise needed to manage kilns, pug mills, slab rollers and wheels. Teachers do worry about where clay is going but I know there are schools and colleges in the UK who, like us, have a passion for clay.

What is happening to the craft of clay? How many schools are still using potters wheels? If courses are not available what is the point in continuing to teach children these skills? Why? Because children love handling clay. They want to squeeze it and experiment with shape and form. They want to see it ooze between their fingers. They want to give it a good bash on the desk. They are liberated, energised and excited by its possibilities.

Junior School Year 4 Owls from 2019, Constructed through Slabs and Coils.

My department are experienced enough to know that allowing the girls to independently explore their ideas is going to lead to fantastic sculptures. We plan and lead projects across our Junior and Senior School, and in particular, the last two years have been busy for us with a range of hand building projects taking shape. We find our sources of inspiration from surprising starting points and impromptu discussions in the department. Hand built animals are always popular, and we like to explore cultures through clay, examples include Egyptian Canopic Jars, Islamic Tiles and Native American Totems.

Researching projects is a fantastic element of Art, Craft and Design teaching and Karen Bull, who studied Ceramics and Glass at Cardiff, spends her valuable technician time creating exemplar sculptures as teaching aids, in addition to team teaching with Nieldre Laubscher and myself. She is very much at the forefront of the department, not just the mysterious figure loading the kiln at the back of the classroom. The girls know her.

Clubs such as Polymer Clay have popped up with students in Year 8 leading these sessions during their lunchtime, continuing their love of 3D work. This group of girls then formed a business venture through one of our Business Studies teachers, Imogen Tansley. The Tenner Challenge is a national competition – ‘Clay Create’ made a healthy profit after successful sales from stalls and markets.

‘ClayCreate’ Year 8 Students (Ariana, Mia, Annie-May and Lois).

Ceramics and working with clay is enjoyed by students of all ages, and we love giving our pupils the chance to be creative and see their ideas come to life. They love to use their imagination, and express themselves with different methods and techniques, to create a final product to be proud of and celebrate. This is the case across the whole of the school, with methods of study and practical tasks progressing as students grow, as you will see below.

A Level student Freya visited Kew Gardens and she was inspired by the glass art installation of Dale Chihuly. She wanted to use clay on a larger scale within a designated space, as opposed to creating a small sculpture, vessel or ornament. She examined curves, rhythms and repetition, before sketching and planning her interior space in The Studio. Additionally, she has made prototypes and support work in paper and card, experimenting with colour and monochromatic pieces.

Left: A Level work in progress. Component parts ready for larger ceramic installation.
Right: Year 4 Owls in Progress. Showing use of hands and modelling tools to achieve texture.

In our Junior School, Year 4 students have taken up the enjoyable task of creating clay owls. Starting with a block of clay, we used various wooden and metal tools, along with knives to refine and develop owl shapes and features, but we talked to pupils about our hands being the best for sculpting. The pupils quickly learned the importance of balance, use of slip and the drying out process before firing.

In Year 8, one exciting task our students undertook during the summer term was to create Islamic designs using traditional terracotta clay. Groups consulted traditional Islamic patterns and symmetry before creating their tiles, which the students carved with wooden and metal tools, incised with knives or built up with raised slabs to create a variety of designs and finishes. Card and paper templates ensured high quality results.

Islamic designs, ready for tile construction, using traditional terracotta clay for authenticity.

Students in Year 9 had great fun creating Club Tropicana inspired plates. Using slabs and underglazes for colour, old plates were used as moulds for the ease of construction and to give a smooth finish, with the finished items being displayed proudly at the front of the school. A recent task for our Year 10 students was to plan and create their own Canopic Jars. Using the coil technique to hand build the structure, the final results were fantastic as you will see below.

The finished results of our Year 9 Club Tropicana plates and the Year 10 Canopic Jars

One of our recent projects was ambitious in both number and scale, with us transforming our Senior School foyer to represent an ocean bed ceramic installation. 71 Year 8 students looked at a range of artists including Ernst Haeckel and Kate Malone, to inspire shapes and forms for their sculptures. Sea sponges, urchins, coral and kelp all provided ideas for the girls to express themselves through slabs, coils and hollowing out solid shapes.

Our intention was to provide our visitors not just with a decorative ocean bed, sweeping underneath our large open stairways, but to share a social comment on plastic in our oceans and the need for this to cease. Upon further inspection, the audience could see the plastic remnants we place in our installation and read the statistics and the action taken to stop this plastic pollution. Eco bricks created and donated by our school community and Eco Team, led by Head of Humanities, Mr Earp, will form part of the installation.

As we return to school, many new exciting projects are underway across all areas of the arts. We are excited to share our progress, and we invite you to head to our Twitter page (@ArtsNHS) where you will find a plethora of media showcasing our students’ outstanding work.

Mrs Mel Beacroft
Head of Creative Arts Faculty


The Blackhole of Social Media

Prompted by a number of parent recommendations and lured by it racing up the Netflix charts, I finally caught up with some of The Social Dilemma last weekend and it offered rather more food for thought than I anticipated.

I hold my hand up here – I am a social media user. But I am also way behind some of our Senior School pupils; I cannot get to grips with media-rich social platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat and I believe the official term for most of my Facebook use is ‘lurking’ (that and shouting at the ridiculous posts on my local Facebook page). But enough about my own use. Suffice to leave it here that I think social media platforms can be a fantastic tool to connect people young and old and conduct citizen science research. And I also think they can be insidious timewasting wormholes, twisting reality and taking young people into black holes filled with worrying misinformation.

The latter of my opinions above is where we meet The Social Dilemma, directed by Jeff Orlowski who is well known for his films about environmental disasters.  Are we suggesting that Social Media is the new disaster waiting to engulf society?  It is presented in what is described by Professor Mary Aiken  as a ‘documentary drama hybrid’ and contains numerous interviews with former employees of various social media companies, who have apparently ‘now converted on some Internet superhighway to Damascus’ (ibid). Yet, despite the high drama and the stark warnings, which one could call out as hypocritical when delivered by these former silicon valley employees, there is something unsettling about watching this series.

The adult me understood the warning about usage of personal data, for example, but I know that teenagers do not generally understand fully what this could mean in terms of the post, information, photos and personal information they willingly share in what they think are closed environments.

My reflections went somewhat deeper than this though and considered the wave of mixed-messages given out by various organisations recently about how dangerous social media is.  The Department of Culture, Media and Sport recently published a white paper  following a consultation about online harms and is possibly as good as we have at the moment. The consensus here being that more research is needed to understand the potential harms.  A quick search online shows the numerous reports giving conflicting conclusions about whether social media causes increased self-harm, anxiety, depression and confusion amongst young people or not.

So where does this leave parents, educators and most importantly young people? Well firstly, I am certain that it is counterproductive for us to demonise mobile devices and social media apps. By doing so, we risk alienating young people who will dismiss our opinions as outdated and uninformed (‘you don’t even use TikTok do you Miss?’!). But we do need to remember that, as with all other aspects of life, our jobs as parents and educators is to guide young people and set clear boundaries.  It is not an easy task but in school we openly talk about social media use, what the good points are and how to protect themselves from the various different dangers that can lurk, including the unrealistic views of perfection that can be found.  Parents can certainly set limits on social media use by restricting app purchases or screen time.  But I would suggest that it is best not to fall into the trap of thinking that banning things is the best way to keep young people safe. Childnet  advise that a Family Agreement on mobile device use is a great tool – and that means agreements for parents too! Certainly, I know a number of families already successfully make use of a set ‘family meeting’ time each week where everyone switches devices off and talks about all sorts of things, including use of devices and what is happening online.  By bringing things out into the open, in a non-judgemental way, you can perhaps help your child to solve the social dilemma.

Parents may find this video of interest. It is part of a series we will be using with older students as part of our ongoing online self-awareness session.

Mrs O’Doherty
Deputy Head (Pastoral Care & Guidance)


Can MOOCS Support Teachers in Offering a Flexible Curriculum?

The New York Times named 2012 ‘The Year of the MOOC’ or Massive Open Online Course. MOOCs moved online learning right away from the hour-long videos of classes uploaded to secure web spaces so students who missed the lesson could catch up. Eight years on and  MOOCs continue to go from strength to strength with arguably the most successful being FutureLearn, backed by longstanding experts in online learning, the Open University.

Educational technology, or EdTech, has been through a variety of stages in schools. In the 1990s and early 2000s we were teaching students how to use software in the world of work. The last decade has mostly been about the tech itself. Do we want iPads, Chromebooks, Microsoft? Do we want Bring Your Own Devices (BYOD) or class-sets? Should we have smartboards or not? These questions have dominated many school discussions.  I am pleased to be part of the GDST community where innovation is valued and shaping EdTech pedagogy is high on the agenda. I believe it doesn’t matter what the platform or software; the main thing is that EdTech should bring the teaching and learning to life, offer choices and give flexibility in the curriculum.

As Dr Eileen Kennedy, Senior Research Associate at UCL, writes that one of the benefits of EdTech is the greater engagement achieved for school pupils though the interaction and collaboration it affords.  EdTech, and specifically, MOOCs can also be hugely advantageous due to their inherent asynchronicity.   It was this feature of learning anytime, anywhere, at your own pace, that led my venture into designing a FutureLearn course.  The driver for this project was the need for flexibility in our curriculum. In fact it was the very flexibility of our Sixth Form curriculum that created a problem requiring a flexible solution! Northampton High School enables Sixth Form students to create a bespoke programme of study; a pick-and-mix of 3 A Levels and a range of elective courses. The Extended Project Qualification elective, for which I am responsible, is highly valued at our school as it gives students an opportunity to study independently and in-depth a topic of personal interest. It also requires a range of skills to be taught in order that students understand how to create an academic piece of work and reflect on the journey they take through the creation of the project. With such a flexible timetable and only two staff delivering the skills, we had been struggling to enable the students to attend the skills sessions needed.  So a plan took shape to devise a MOOC (or in this case a SPOC – Small Personal Online Course – as it was initially only accessible to the students at Northampton High School).   Video content, suitable tasks, articles and reading materials all needed to be sourced, created or adapted to fit the online learning mode of study. I decided, for example, to use first hand materials from previous EPQ students in my video content, to hopefully bring the program to life for students.

In terms of pedagogical process, designing the course was very similar to planning a traditional scheme of work.  Only this time we had a range of online tools such as YouTube clips, in-house videos, self-marking quizzes and randomised peer-marked tasks to add into our resources armoury. The other notable change in terms of setting tasks was the built in discussion tools offered by FutureLearn. Collaboration and connection are vital features in successful online courses.  Learning how to help students engage in meaningful discussions was probably the aspect of course design that exercised me most.

And so far, so good.  Numbers of students engaging in the EPQ at Northampton High are up this year and their discussion about topic choices appear to have been aided by the online discussions.  I am certain that teachers have nothing to fear from online courses; they will not make our roles redundant but are more likely enhance engagement with our subject and give more depth to discussion and collaboration when we are face to face in the classroom.




Tough lessons in learning

I always think that late January has something of a ‘between the wars’ feeling to it in school. As Year 11 students breathe a sigh of relief and head bleary-eyed back into lessons after their mock exams, Year 13 students are girding their loins for the onslaught of their own practice papers. And let there be no doubt, mock exams are a significant hurdle. At first glance, they may simply appear to be a measurement against the exam boards’ yard sticks, but, of necessity, they are crammed into a short period of time, and doomed to attempt the near impossible – to give a picture of overall attainment in courses that are not even completed in many cases.

For teachers, parents and guardians they represent a challenge too. At best, they provide a helpful pointer in terms of likely achievement, but they also often hint at how much more could be achieved if heels were picked up and whips were cracked, ringing alarm bells that can lead to disillusionment. We must help students to see mocks as opportunities for development and reflection that do not merit such draining emotional torments, while also ensuring they take them seriously.

And yet, year after year, we see final exam grades that significantly outstrip mock results. So surely they are doing their job? I would argue that this is indeed the case, and the very fact that they are able to replicate some of the high stakes to come is what leads to this success.

So, what is indispensable to effective learning and how do mocks help with this? Research points to active processes for recalling information as being the most effective. In essence, this is what tests do – force learners actively to reclaim specific knowledge from their memories, according to the requirements of a given paper.

This is why past paper practice, like the mocks, can be such a good way to revise. If you want to support a learner towards a specific aim, you practise within the context. It is of little help to a learner driver in a practical test to read and reread the Highway Code, but improving parallel parking by completing the manoeuvre multiple times in different parts of town will certainly make a difference.

In their research, Dunlosky et al. say that practice testing has ‘high utility’ and is ‘not time intensive in comparison with other techniques’. This comparison is with very widespread but unproductive methods for revision, such as rereading, highlighting and making notes. Study vlogger Ali Abdaal goes into more detail on this in his YouTube channel here:

So, gather all the past papers and individual practice questions you can. Complete them (in timed conditions, if possible) and seek feedback on all of them. Use forums to see what other people thought of past papers and get to know what the board is looking for by reading examiners’ reports.

Don’t forget, the more active you are in extracting your memories, the more learning you are doing.


John Dunlosky, Katherine A. Rawson, Elizabeth J. Marsh, Mitchell J. Nathan, Daniel T. Willingham; Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. In Psychological Science in the Public Interest Journal, January 2013