skip to Main Content

If your GCSE English results are good, congratulations!

But if they could be improved or raised further, you may want to review some aspects of teaching and learning in the light of recent research. The immediate need, of course, is to raise students’ attainment to the next grade above expectation, particularly by achieving more grade 8s and 9s but also by raising attainment by less able students whose grades count equally towards Progress 8. Behind this is the Government’s long-term policy of raising GCSEs’ demand to match the standards of higher-achieving educational systems, see The Importance of Teaching White Paper (2010) [PDF document]. This means that, when the new GCSEs have settled in uncontroversially through Ofqual’s policy of ‘comparable outcomes’, their demand will gradually be raised further, monitored by the new National Reference Tests in English and Maths.

Ofqual’s ‘comparable outcomes’ policy prevents students from being disadvantaged by the introduction of more demanding examinations by awarding similar proportions of grades as previously. But this policy reflects previous standards – it doesn’t raise them. The Coalition Government’s commitment to raising standards in England to those of the highest-attaining educational systems remains current Government policy and is tacitly supported by Labour. It can’t be achieved by continuing current standards as is shown by a recent paper by the Education Policy Institute – English Education: World Class? [PDF document]. This shows that half of pupils in England should be scoring 50 points or higher across their Attainment 8 subjects to match the most successful countries, but only 40 per cent are doing so at present. And there are huge variations: in London 45 per cent of pupils achieve the world class benchmark while fewer than a third achieve it in other parts of the country.

There is also a risk that attainment will appear to rise owing to teachers’ and students’ greater familiarity with the new exams – the well-established ‘sawtooth effect’ [PDF document]. Again, the new National Reference Tests will ensure the necessary allowance is made for this.

Forward-looking schools will need to be aware that Governments of whatever political party will continue to require GCSE standards to be raised and require schools to do better with their moderately and less able students. UK workers’ relatively low productivity will continue to make this necessary. We hope the following will help schools to prepare for what is coming.

Where to start

If you don’t know it, a good place to start is Professor Robert Coe’s clear and helpful paper Improving Education: A triumph of hope over experience [PDF document]. He shows how standards in England’s schools haven’t risen for 25 years and how this has been hidden by GCSE grade inflation which has led to Ofqual taking control of the Exam Boards’ marking and awarding. But more important he shows why standards haven’t risen. Basically it’s because SLTs have often required teachers to focus on aspects of teaching that don’t raise attainment and assessed teaching on surface features, not quality of learning. This isn’t their fault, of course – everyone wants their students to do better. But why has this happened? Coe is too polite to say, but it’s the result of poor political decisions over many years.

Robert Coe is a leading member of a group of researchers promoting evidence-based education. In what follows, the illustrations are from his paper.

Failed policies on teaching and learning

The Labour Government elected in 1997 was committed to raising educational standards (”Education, education, education”) and set about this by creating the National Strategies, initially in English and Maths. Advised by consultants employed by the DoE, a formulaic teacher-led model of lesson delivery was developed with learning objectives, a starter activity, episodes often evidenced immediately with some writing, and a plenary. In English, simplistic techniques like Point-Evidence-Explanation were encouraged. This model was rolled out nationally by a private company, Capita, which employed consultants in every local authority. The aim was to bypass local authorities and HMI to create a national model of lesson delivery.

At the same time Ofsted pressured schools to assess students more and more frequently to track their progress against predicted National Curriculum levels and, in secondary schools, predicted GCSE grades. This was to fulfil the expectation that every student should make progress in every lesson. In some schools this led to every piece of students’ work being assessed against National Curriculum sublevels or, from 2002, the assessment focusses underpinning the National Curriculum tests or, from 2008, Assessing Pupil Progress (APP) criteria, with inevitable pressure on teachers to teach-to-the-criteria or, at worst, inflate outcomes to show ‘progress’.

The problem was that neither of these policies was based on any research, as the outcomes of international education surveys eventually showed.

Performance of England in international surveys

The consultants employed by the DoE and HMI assumed these policies would raise attainment because they looked sensible. But they didn’t. The three international surveys of educational attainment – PISA, PIRLS and TIMSS – showed England’s attainment as flatlining year after year.

However, this lack of improvement was disguised by GCSE results which showed a year by year increase of A – C grades (subsequently A* – C) from 29.9 per cent in 1988 when GCSE began to 81.1 per cent in 2012, a rise not remotely paralleled anywhere else in the world.

Changes in proportion gaining five A*-Cs at GCSE

By 2008 the Government accepted that the mismatch between the international surveys and the GCSE results was unsustainable. In April 2008 it created Ofqual to commission research on the reliability of the Key Stage 2 tests, GCSE and A Level. This was eventually published in 2012 as a 903 page book, Ofqual’s Reliability Compendium. The evidence of grade inflation by the Exam Boards to maintain their market share was clear and Ofqual was given statutory powers to monitor and control the awarding of GCSE and A Level grades, beginning in April 2010.

In 2008 the Government also announced the immediate end of the Key Stage 3 National Curriculum tests and the end of the National Strategies when
Capita’s contract expired in March 2011. Ofsted quietly withdrew its expectation that every student should be seen to make progress in every lesson, but little else happened until the Coalition initiated a review of the National Curriculum in November 2010. This found over-assessment of pupils’ work against National Curriculum sub-levels so widespread, frequent and pointless that it recommended a new National Curriculum without levels – The Framework for the National Curriculum [PDF document]. This was implemented, but many schools have found ways of continuing frequent assessment of students’ work against the new National Curriculum though there is no evidence it raises attainment.

Government silence and its consequences

The problem for schools is that Government has never informed them that the two failed policies – the National Strategies and frequent assessment of progress towards target grades – are discredited because they failed to raise attainment and should be discontinued. For Labour, the reason was evidently embarrassment at admitting that the millions spent on the National Strategies were wasted. For the Coalition and Conservative Governments, giving schools guidance on teaching, learning and assessment conflicts with the policy of devolving these wholly to schools – schools are to manage these matters themselves with final assessments as national tests in Year 6 or GCSE and A Level monitored by Ofqual to ensure reliability and consistency.

Unfortunately for secondary schools, this silence about teaching and learning has accompanied the most radical set of reforms in the history of school examinations in Britain. These implement the cross-party policy of raising attainment in England’s schools to that of more successful countries and, in particular, raising the attainment of moderately and less able students who currently leave school with poor qualifications or none – see The Importance of Teaching White Paper (2010) [PDF document].

All aspects of GCSE have been reformed so that they are now:

  • more demanding in examination (end-of-course only), content and assessment (more challenging questions)
  • graded differently with 9 grades (9 – 1) instead of 8 (A* – G)
  • consistent in standard between Exam Boards (Ofqual)
  • referenced to national standards over time by national reference tests in English and Mathematics
  • equitable so that all grades count towards Attainment 8 and Progress 8
  • the lead measure of school accountability through Progress 8
  • focussed on effective teaching e.g. by requiring Ofsted to report on how schools are closing the gap for disadvantaged pupils and by funding research into effective teaching methods, chiefly through the Education Endowment Foundation.

The changes are well-intentioned, but schools have been left to work out the best way of responding to these unprecedented demands by themselves – it’s hard to imagine any other country treating its schools in this way. The last advice on teaching and learning from Government was in the 2000s – through the National Strategies and a more assertive Ofsted inspection model expecting every student to show progress in every lesson and frequent assessment against target grades, both now discontinued as ineffective. But, as mentioned, Government has never informed schools that these policies are discredited and withdrawn, so many SLTs understandably require their staff to continue with them, assuming they are still valid. This has two consequences which reduce effective teaching and learning in many schools.

First, teachers are required to spend time on teaching approaches and assessments which don’t increase good quality learning and distract them from approaches that do. This contributes to excessive workload, tiredness and high staff turnover. The DfE recognised this in February 2015 with its Workload Challenge and by March 2016 commissioned three reports on reducing the demands of marking, planning and data management – Surprisingly the DfE hasn’t taken the opportunity to state clearly and repeatedly that the National Strategies teaching model and frequent assessment against target grades should be discontinued as ineffective. Unsurprisingly most schools have ignored the workload recommendations –

Second, unless they are in a local authority or MAT with a good adviser on teaching and learning, schools may turn to bodies like PiXL and Thinking Schools International which promote a ‘tips and tricks’ approach to raising attainment, recommending approaches which look attractive but for which there is no research evidence that they significantly improve learning. Others obtain advice informally (and more cheaply) through TeachMeets, online forums and the latter pages of the TES. None of this works except at the margins.

So how do we raise attainment?

The vital importance of research is shown by the Education Endowment Foundation which is funded by Government to commission research on raising attainment in schools. The research is rigorous, with random controlled trials and results evaluated independently of the researchers. Most projects show little or no impact, with a few showing sufficient promise to warrant further research. But the EEF has also commissioned researchers at the University of Durham, including Robert Coe, to summarise the international research on 34 possible ways of raising attainment in schools, relating their effectiveness to their cost. This is published as a Teaching and Learning Toolkit.

Here is Robert Coe’s visual summary of the Toolkit.

Impact vs cost

It will be seen that the most effective approaches all relate to practical aspects of teaching: feedback, metacognition, peer-tutoring, collaboration (i.e. groupwork) and, in secondary schools, well-designed homework. These approaches also feature high in John Hattie’s work on Visible Learning for Teachers (2012). There is strong overlap with Dialogic Teaching developed by Robin Alexander and Neil Mercer which the EEF has recently confirmed as a potentially powerful way of improving learning at Key Stage 2 – Dialogic Teaching – and with the promotion of Carol Dweck’s growth mindset. There have also been effective adaptations of the CA model. One of the most remarkable related to teaching a large-enrolment freshman Physics course at the University of British Columbia which achieved an effect size of 2.5, one of the largest increases ever recorded in a standardised trial – see The University of British Columbia experiment [PDF document]. Taken together, the research evidence is robust, repeated and incontrovertible.

What makes great GCSE English teaching?

It is worth recalling that the new GCSE specs explicitly require the teaching of reasoning skills applied to texts. In English Language, most marks for Reading are awarded for analysis, evaluation and comparison of unseen texts. In English Literature marks are awarded for analysis of studied texts and development of informed personal responses to aspects of them as required by the examination questions and for comparison of unseen poems. These reasoning skills operate on the basis of texts, studied and unseen, so that students require a rich cultural awareness of how English has been used for various purposes, chiefly in the 19th to 21st centuries but also by Shakespeare. These changes have been introduced because such demands are common in other more educationally successful countries.

The new demands are considerable. For success, students must be able to respond swiftly, confidently and in depth, in timed examinations, to a range of unseen texts and searching questions about studied texts. And, for Progress 8, these skills must be taught across the whole ability range. Clearly they can’t be taught quickly – they need to be built up over time with regular practice.

How can these skills be taught most successfully? As Coe points out, the first stage is to focus teaching on requiring students to think: “Learning happens when people have to think hard.” But this may not be students’ top priority. There is research evidence that some prefer to finish quickly or get an answer with the least effort or avoid the teacher making demands on them. Every teacher is aware of students who engage with learning as little as possible or don’t work to their full ability much of the time. How can a teacher ensure that all the students in the class are thinking hard at several points, perhaps many points, in the lesson so that they will definitely be learning?

Second, how can the teacher be sure to incorporate the features that the EEF Toolkit show raise attainment most: effective feedback, metacognition, peer-tutoring and collaboration leading to well-designed homework? (Incidentally this is why most textbooks are of limited value except for providing useful texts. They are designed to be used by students working alone as well as in schools and so provide little opportunity for feedback, metacognition, etc. These have to be led by a teacher in conversation with the class.)

Third, lessons that encourage thinking and provide a structure for effective feedback, metacognition, etc, also need to use a range of rich authentic texts using fiction, non-fiction and poetry from appropriate periods.

Finally, designing lessons which engage students in thinking hard about
demanding texts and provide effective feedback, metacognition, etc, is difficult and takes some expertise. Teachers can’t learn this from a single input. There needs to be a CPD programme which provides modelling of lessons over several sessions with observations and support until teachers are confident in the new approach. This is also recommended by the DFE’s Standard for teachers’ professional development (June 2016) [PDF document].

Cognitive acceleration

The programme which best fulfils all these requirements is Adey and Shayer’s Cognitive Acceleration (CA), devised at King’s College London for Science in the 70s and 80s and for English since 2009. Based on work by Vygotsky and Piaget, the programme provides structured challenge by which students develop their capacity for thinking by working out the best solution to problems through group discussion, facilitated by the teacher with effective feedback and a clear focus on metacognition.

There are similarities with Philosophy for Children and Feuerstein’s Instrumental Enrichment, but CA is distinctive in providing a suite of lessons explicitly designed to develop higher-order thinking in relation to school subjects. The lessons are designed to be used fortnightly, 15 per year, over two years in KS3 and in Year 10. (There are also separate suites of lessons for primary schools.)

Formal trials of CA in Science Education (CASE) were conducted throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In every case the average gain compared with matched non-CASE students was between 1 and 2 National Curriculum levels and between 1 and 2 GCSE grades. There were significant long-term effects, up to three years after a two-year intervention, and transfer effects into Mathematics and English from an intervention in Science, suggesting that CASE increased general reasoning powers, not only those relating to Science – see Adey and Shayer The Effects of Cognitive Acceleration – and speculation about causes of these effects [PDF document].

A central feature of this success was that Adey, Shayer and their co-workers ensured that the teachers understood the CA pedagogy and supported them until they delivered it effectively. This influenced the teachers’ approach to teaching so that they adapted their teaching in CA-related ways, further raising students’ attainment. (With Let’s Think in English we find teachers soon start developing their own LTE-style lessons.)

A particularly important feature of CA is its ability to raise the attainment of lower ability and EAL students – see e.g. Really raising standards in GCSE English, Appendix 5 [PDF document]. This is why many schools are using pupil premium money to fund CA/Let’s Think in English, though it helps all students.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, CASE was highly successful in English schools and CA programmes were developed in Mathematics (CAME), Technology and the Arts (Drama, Music and Visual Art) and in Science and Mathematics for primary schools, all with similar effect sizes. However, from 2000 CA was gradually squeezed out of schools’ teaching programmes by pressures of the National Strategies and Ofsted’s requirement of frequent assessment for tracking purposes. Interest in CASE has gradually revived in recent years and a CA programme for English has been developed on exactly the same principles since 2009. This is now used by some 350 schools in England and in Jersey, Switzerland, Hong Kong and Vietnam.

Interest in CASE has also developed abroad, with formal trials in ten countries see McCormack 2013 [PDF document]. It has become particularly well-established in Australia where there is continuing and growing interest – see Oliver and Grenville (2016) Bringing CASE in from the cold: the teaching and learning of thinking.

Against this background, the Let’s Think in English programme provides:

  • 30 fully trialled, high interest KS3 lessons and 20 KS4 lessons, using high-quality authentic texts, with more being added termly
  • a year’s in-school training and support
  • particularly effective support for lower ability and EAL students
  • a structured basis for teaching the reasoning skills and confidence required for success in the new GCSE English specifications
  • a basis, where necessary, for persuading SLTs to allow English Departments to move on from National Strategies-based pedagogy and unnecessary repeated assessments to a structured programme of proven effectiveness in raising attainment
  • a total package costing less than three pupil premiums.

For further information, see For other CA and CA-related programmes, see (Science and Maths) and (Maths).

4th September 2017

Any comments or enquiries to

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Surely we’ve picked up by now that effect sizes are no more a measure of educational impact than learning styles are a suitable approach to developing teaching approaches. The whole notion of ‘months impact’ has been thoroughly debunked. Even the most ardent fan of meta-analyses accepts that they are fundamentally measures of the type of experiment undertaken (Slavin & Cheung, 2016, and exploring the EEF toolkit in detail shows that it is fundamentally flawed (Simpson,2017, If we’re going to be ‘evidence based’, let’s think about the nature of the evidence and what it is evidence of.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *