Making GCSEs Work *For All


Whether you have special needs or not, you want to achieve! Achievement makes us feel good. It lifts our spirits, motivates us and gives us a glimpse of our potential. When that achievement is nationally recognised and has the ability to show that we are employable, it gains even more weight and significance to our lives. This is why GCSEs are so important. And this is why we should strive to ensure that GCSEs work for as many SEND learners as possible. So how we do this? Let me count the ways…


We can make GCSEs work for SEND learners when we ensure that we have the highest possible expectations for our learners. 

There are SEND learners who are thought to be incapable of sitting a GCSE because they get anxious or they stim excessively or they have echolalic speech or because they are dyslexic…and the list goes on. Of course, it is easy to see the disability, the behaviours and the barriers that inhibits their learning. In fact, some educators equate these behaviours with academic ability. But, we must never underestimate the potential for students to improve and grow both academically and emotionally. Therefore, instead of being caught up in the labels and the behaviour, we must seek to look beyond them to consider the resources we can put in place to ensure that they’ll be able to sit GCSEs and show progress by the time they get to Year 11.


We can make GCSEs work for SEND learners when our schools begin to focus on progress NOT grades.

In order to make GCSEs work for SEND learners, our message to students should focus on progress rather than grades. It is possible that reporting marks from assessments in percentages, could be one of the quickest ways to shift the focus to progress. When a student sees their marks after each assessment, the focus will change from just the mark / grade received to the amount of points they have moved up or down. This will make it possible for students to celebrate when they see how many points they have moved up, even if they didn’t achieve a very high mark.


We can make GCSEs work for SEND learners by using effective learning strategies like testing. 

When students are told that they have to sit a test, they are often filled with fear and anxiety. Anxiety is clearly a major barrier for many of our learners and this anxiety is multiplied when they are faced with tests. This is why it is so wonderful to know that retrieval practice can be so beneficial in improving the long term memory of learners. You see, regular tests helps students to get used to tests and exams and will possibly reduce some of the anxiety that students feel as a result. Concurrently, these tests have the added benefit of improving students’ memory, which is so often another key barrier for SEND learners. So to make GCSEs work for these learners, we must have regular testing.


We can make GCSEs work for SEND learners when there is a clear way of signposting the progress points achieved by students alongside their final GCSE grades.

In the age of levels, the minimum expectation was that students would make 3 levels of progress between KS2 (end of primary) and KS4 (GCSE). In this case, 3 might be seen as the average level of progress that was expected. Although the system has changed, it would be useful if on a transcript or alongside the grades awarded at GCSEs, there would be a clear indication of the levels of progress made. Therefore, for students who received grades like a 3/4, they could explain that whilst they received a 3, they made 4 levels of progress throughout their time in Secondary School. The focus would be on making sure that future employers and schools would be able to see when a young person has exceeded expectations. It would speak of effort, of grit and that child’s drive to succeed. Publicising this information and making it clear would be vital, but it could make an enormous difference for SEND learners who are striving to move on in their education or work.


We can make GCSEs work for SEND learners by making sure that schools and learners are not negatively penalised, if they are not entered for 8 subjects at GCSE.

Having a rigorous curriculum that models the high expectations that we want to see in our schools and society is extremely important. However, it is possible that a school’s obsession with the EBacc, Attainment 8 and Progress 8 scores could prove counter productive for SEND learners. For some SEND learners, having to complete at least 8 subjects might prove extremely challenging  and they might find it difficult to do well with 8. So it is possible that by reducing the number of subjects for some SEND learners and providing additional support to increase prowess in key subjects, they could gain higher grades. However, schools might be reluctant to reduce the number of subjects or provide subjects outside the approved list because this could negatively affect their progress 8 scores and their league table ratings. Therefore, allowing students to focus in on 5 key subjects would risk their place as a leading educational institution. And this is a risk, that few, if any, would be willing to take.

So yes, GCSEs are very important and it is necessary that we help our SEND learners to achieve the best possible results. However, unless we make changes, we will be blocking many able learners from showing what they are truly capable of. You know, over the last couple of days, since students gained their GCSE results, many schools have put up posts, boasting about the students who secured the top grades. I have yet to read inspirational stories about students who started secondary school with the expectation that they wouldn’t gain above Es and attained Cs. These are the stories that aren’t being told. And they aren’t being told because we are constantly caught up in the idea that it’s the grades that matter, not the progress. Now, I’m not saying that grades don’t have relevance. Of course they do! But, if we are truly committed to building resilience, to the development of a growth mindset, to progress, we must shift the narrative. If we want to help our SEND learners to feel a sense of pride in their achievements and to recognise their value to society, we must change the narrative. And this new narrative must not only work for a few, it must work for all! 


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