Getting off to a Good Start at Key Stage 5 by Wendy Wilson

Let me ask you a question:  who do you have in front of you in your year 12 class?

Is it a bright student who has coasted through GCSE without ever really working, or is it a set 3 student who isn’t sure they fit into this group?

Maybe it’s an external student who is worrying about making friends, or an A* student who doesn’t know how to learn from mistakes, because they’ve never really made any?

My experiences as an A level English teacher and a Sixth Form pastoral leader have taught me that for the most part, successful year 12 students are made, not born.  So in a year where multiple curriculum changes have made giving our Sixth Form students the very best chance, just a little bit harder, I set out to try to identify some key strategies for delivering outstanding courses at key stage 5.

Let’s return to our first question, because our A level or BTEC year 12 class have not turned magically into polished Sixth Form students over the summer holiday and if we assume that they have, we are missing out on both an opportunity and a responsibility to train them in how to work effectively in our subject.  To gain an insight into the students’ perspective, I decided to start by surveying them in early December on their initial experiences of their year 12 courses.

The good news was that 90% of students were finding their lessons pitched at either the right level or were finding them challenging, but accessible.  With a mixed ability cohort across a range of subjects, these statistics were encouraging.  However, another area of feedback struck me as needing further thought.  Although 89% of students were finding lessons useful,  only around 20% of students felt that they were always shown how to make progress, and nearly a quarter lacked confidence about meeting their targets.  To get a fuller picture, I enlisted the support of a colleague, Olya Iasisen, and we set about carrying out some student voice with different ability groups.  The feedback was both revealing and surprisingly consistent.  Students liked:

  • Teachers who project confidence about their knowledge of specifications – especially new ones.
  • Information on exam structure, assessment criteria, past papers or example questions.
  • Explicit guidance about how to structure and word answers, including model answers.
  • Detailed feedback on homework and mock exams.
  • Explicit guidance about what to do to reach the next level.
  • Access to powerpoints, so that they can listen rather than taking notes.
  • One to one conversations.

It became clear to us, that building confidence was central to creating a resilient and positive mindset in our students.  This was particularly crucial in the case of phase 1 subjects, where some staff had unwittingly undermined confidence by revealing their own anxieties about teaching a new specification or by highlighting the lack of past papers and exemplar material.  And of course, as we all know, students don’t want to share our stress, our job is to make them feel safe and secure.


Over the next few weeks we fed back to staff and also worked with Heads of Department, Sixth Form students and the Sixth Form Pastoral Team to identify key strategies for ensuring good practice. Unsurprisingly, we found that clear planning, knowing our students, and building confidence and independence were all interconnected and underpinned successful teaching and learning.  Below is a summary of those ideas, and some practical ways in which they might be applied.

Ensuring that students know how to progress and that they are aware of how we help them to do this:

  • Provide mark schemes, including student friendly ones. Refer constantly to assessment criteria in lessons and on work. Be explicit in wording feedback – for example, “In order to reach the next level, you need to…”
  • Get students to RAG the mark scheme or syllabus so that they have a visual record of strengths and weaknesses. Return to this regularly, so that students can see that they are progressing.
  • Use personalised check lists so that students can identify which areas they need to work on.
  • Provide differentiated exemplar answers – get students to mark these so that they are familiar with the mark scheme.
  • Teacher modelling of answers. Write the response “live” and get the students to suggest ideas and improvements.
  • Ask students to write an exam answer using the mark scheme as guidance.
  • Ask students to create exam questions and mark schemes following the exam board format.

Building student confidence about meeting targets

  • Use confident language when discussing the course – explain what you have done to prepare for the new syllabus rather than saying that you don’t know what might come up!
  • Take time to have one to one conversations with all students in your class at some point at least once a term.
  • Don’t forget to acknowledge progress and use praise and rewards, rather than always focusing on what students need to improve.
  • Give students time to consolidate their work through specific class / homework activities.
  • Make it safe to say they don’t understand eg use a “stuck board” / post-its on the board. Use this information to inform teaching and revision sessions.
  • Pair most able with least able for some activities.
  • Get students to teach each other in areas where they are strong.
  • Break down large tasks into more manageable chunks to build skills gradually.
  • Include short tests on key facts and vocabulary which all students can excel in with the appropriate effort.
  • Ensure that you are aware of any students in vulnerable groups and that you give additional support where needed.
  • Acknowledge the value or risk taking and making mistakes as part of the learning process.

Covering content / de-stuffing:

  • Place a strong focus on lesson preparation and make students accountable for this by testing knowledge in starters / quizzes etc.
  • Give students a list of activities which need to be completed during study periods. These could include group work tasks.
  • Set specific background reading and tell students which websites to use for their research.
  • Get students to create starters and plenaries or to write worksheets based on what they have researched.
  • Encourage students to work ahead in their text books / lesson content. Be specific about activities or reading that they should be doing in their study periods.
  • Provide powerpoints or photocopies of notes so that students can spend more time listening and engaging, rather than taking notes.
  • Focus on higher order skills and questioning in lessons, by finding alternative ways to deliver content.
  • Publish and stick to interim deadlines, rather than just giving one big deadline at the end.
  • Make use of any external workshops, performances, lectures which will guide student.

Differentiation / stretch and challenge:

  • Provide specific literacy support / scaffold tasks for students in your subject. Give guidance on how to structure answers.  Teach other key study skills needed for your subject eg numeracy, research skills.
  • Ensure that students understand the meaning of key vocabulary that occurs in your exam questions eg analyse, evaluate etc.
  • Follow up students whose combination of subjects / prior experience make them less well prepared to study your subject. Make provision for students who did not study your subject at GCSE.
  • Teach students how to revise in your subject. Set specific revision tasks for homework.
  • Vary groupings, so that students sometimes work on different tasks in ability groups and are sometimes in mixed ability groups.
  • Create activities where students can work at their own pace ie by selecting particular tasks to complete.
  • Set up study groups and ask able students to lead these.
  • Provide links to specific websites, lectures and articles to stretch able students.
  • Run a surgery at a set time each week.

Fundamentally, both students and teachers were worried about the same things – covering large amounts of content in a short time and bringing about the rapid progress demanded on level 3 courses. We may not be able to use all these suggestions all of the time, but if we give our students a clear timeline and the key tools they need, then we might just succeed in differentiating not only by ability, but also by confidence, organisation and work ethic.