Principal’s Blog: Quarter-Term

This weekend we are trialling having a mini ‘quarter term’ break to see if it reduces the tiredness and lack of concentration we can get in December, as the fatigue of the term starts to affect our students.

It seems hard to imagine that sitting at a desk working on sums or adjectives, molecules and the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis can be wearing, but the brain when it is being stretched uses huge amounts of energy. To light up the whole brain and really challenge it to make new neural pathways leads eventually to ‘learning fatigue’. Just like an athlete, we have to be careful not to ‘over train’ because that can become counter-productive. How do we know our students are becoming over tired? One of the main symptoms is illness. They become ill because their immune system is under stress because of how hard they have to work to keep learning new things. That means that every year as we go into December our illness rates rocket and our productivity for learning drops.

So we are experimenting to see if a long weekend planted between October half term and the excitement of Christmas will enable some recovery and down time, that will give the boost we want to make the most of those last 14 working days before the Christmas holidays. For Year 11 in particular, who are doing extra lessons after school throughout late November and into December, a break now will give them the impetus they need to keep going until Christmas. All the coursework will be done by then and we can focus on examination technique and learning the facts next term. One of the big changes to GCSE is the new emphasis on knowing and remembering a lot more.

Changes Afoot – new grades

There are further changes afoot for examinations over the next few years. Our current Year 11 are the last year group nationally who will get a letter grade in English and Maths GCSE. There will not be many parents who can remember a time before we had GCSEs and letter grades A*-G, but you are going to feel as out of date as those very old ‘O’ levels in the past. In 2017 (current Year 10) English and Maths will be graded from 1 to 9, with 9 being the highest and set at a level which takes in the top half of A* and adds a further degree of difficulty, closer to the demands of AS level. In 2018 (current Year 9) subjects Geography, History, Science, Modern Foreign Languages, Science, Computer Science and Art will start to use grades 1-9, and then in 2019 onwards (current Year 8) there will be no letter grades for any subject. This does mean a couple of years in which you will see a mixture of letters and numbers, which may be rather confusing.

Just to add some spice to this already turbulent period, the new 1-9 grades are not equivalent to GCSE grades. For example, the new ‘pass’ grade that we will want all students to achieve is grade 5, but this is not the same as a current grade C – but harder. The grade boundary will be set somewhere half way up current grade C and include half of current grade B. That combined with the fact that the new English curriculum contains a requirement to study 19th Century texts (much harder!) and the Maths curriculum is 50% bigger than it is currently, means that everyone except Year 11 have got a much bigger hill to climb to reach the required standards. You will have heard the government say they intend to make examinations tougher and this is the reality of that statement.

One impact will be that for Year 8 onwards a grade 5 will be the required standard in English and Maths before a student can finish education. Not reaching grade 5 at GCSE will mean retaking whilst doing apprenticeships, A levels or vocational qualifications at college. That will be harder for them than it is for older brothers and sisters in Years 9 to 11 who only have to reach old grade C standard or grade 4.

If you want to be a teacher though, Maths and English beyond GCSE is likely to be required in the future, certainly for primary school teachers. The expectations around grammar and Maths for Year 5 and 6 are now so high that just scraping grade 5 at GCSE will be insufficient. I expect other professions will follow. Currently 30% of our leavers take A level Maths and that plus the new Core Maths qualification are likely to be more popular. In Singapore, 95% of students take A level maths or equivalent vocational qualifications and the government wants Britain to try to get closer to that goal.

The same is happening in our primary schools with the current Year 6 being the first to take a new harder Key Stage 2 Test and the first year without the ‘levels’ we are all used to. Year 6 will get a number at the end of the year and we will use than number to set the expected grades for them when they arrive here.

A lot of this will be explained further. There is in short a lot more change over the next few years than we have seen for many years past. We will keep you informed of everything as we get to know it.

Finally I would like to congratulate two people associated with Penrice for their achievements – Brandon Washington in Year 9, who recently attended an International Judo event and to our delight has come away with a Silver Medal, a really significant achievement in a very competitive event globally. The second person I want to congratulate is one of our teachers, Mr Edwards, who has just received one of the highest honours for any teacher of Computing and has been made a Distinguished Microsoft Educator. This is a highly competitive and difficult to achieve honour and one that is held by the top teachers of Computing in North America and Europe. This is the second member of our staff to win such recognition following Mr Hopkins in our Maths team being recognised by Apple in the same way.

It is great to see the work of students and staff being recognised internationally.

David Parker, Principal