Can we put Learning First?

I have been thinking a lot recently about the feedback we give to pupils on their work and the usefulness or otherwise of trying to record progress. The removal of national curriculum levels at KS3 and the fact that we have no idea what the grade boundaries look like at GCSE mean that we have had to think again.

As a school we have decided to track progress towards a GCSE target. In order to do this we thought as a department about a “typical” pupil who went on to achieve a C at GCSE and considered what their work was like in year 7, 8, 9 and 10. What progress did we see? What could they do in a variety of key geographical areas in each of these years? We did the same for an A grade pupil and an F grade pupil and then filled in the gaps.

What we came up with was something that looked like this.


I will say that I have some doubts about this. I don’t like the sub-Bloomsian (it’s a word) nature of it. You of course end up with meaningless distinctions between “basic” and “simple”. I also worry that we just end up recreating national currciulum levels and start trying to grade work with this grid saying “this work shows you are on track for…” which was never its intention. But it works within the school policy and means that we can say whether we think that a particular pupil is on track or not and why and it means that we can have discussions as a department about who appears to be making progress and who doesn’t as suggested by the great Stephan Tierney (a great post on this here).

A far more important document came out of this process however. When we sat down to do this the very first thing we did was to discuss what Geography involves. This gave us our 9 strands in the document above. We then came up with a statement for what excellent work looked like for each of these strands. What did excellent cartographic skills look like? What does it mean to write an excellent conclusion?


It is these 9 statements that have become the bedrock for what we do in our department. This is what we use to give feedback to our pupils – is your work excellent yet? If not – why not? What do you need to do?

Keeping to this principle means that we can largely ignore the need for grades and levels as far as the pupils are concerned. As Dawn Cox points out in her excellent blog post trying to both give this kind of feedback to pupils AND collect the data required for the school increases the workload. I also have concerns about the quality of the data we gather. We don’t know what a level 6 will look like in the new GCSE specification so saying whether a pupil is on track for it or not is largely meaningless. However we as a department do know what a B grade collection of work looks like and collecting data does allow for interesting discussions on progress as Stephen Tierney suggests.

I would love for us to reach a point where all we do is discuss whether work is excellent and what we are going to get to that stage. However for now I am happy with the compromise we have reached. With pupils we discuss how to make their work excellent whilst at the same time attempting to give the school the data they need to monitor progress and for us to trigger professional conversations.

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