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! 


How to get the best from your autistic students!

There is a universe out there, where teachers stand poised at the front of classrooms waving wands and students respond with glee to every demand. Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on your world view) our classrooms are vastly different spaces made up with unique personalities and quirks demanding our understanding and wit. When working with ASC (Autistic Spectrum Condition) learners, some might say, the landscape becomes even more challenging as these learners might be reluctant to engage with topics that aren’t a part of their primary interests. There are of course a range of different strategies that can be used to engage our ASC learners and I’ve placed by top 5 strategies and explanations of how they have worked below.


Using Visuals

Ok, I admit it! When I started working in a ASC school, the term visuals filled me with dread. Would I have to find a picture to represent the minutiae of everything I was trying to say? Of course not. It was soon explained that this could simply mean a written checklist that helps students to know what they would be doing and when, within each lesson. As you might be aware, ASC learners appreciate routines and so by providing them with a structure and a clear view of what they needed to do and where the lesson was going, their anxieties reduced and it was possible to get them to plug in to the learning at hand. Therefore, providing a road map for the journey ahead helped to increase students’ desire to engage with their learning.

Group Work

Yes, I know, we are well familiar with the fact that many ASC learners find social interaction difficult. Sometimes, this is because they want to be by themselves as they can find communication with others to be quite stressful and unpredictable. However, I have come to recognise that at heart, all the autistic learners that I have worked with have a deep desire to interact, communicate and make friends. Therefore, by allowing them to work with peers they like and respect or have common interests with, it becomes possible to make them excited about working on a task with a fellow student. Of course, it requires a lot of forethought in regards to groupings but if the grouping is right and the instructions are clear, it is possible to see incredible outcomes.

Tapping into Their Interests

It is true that learners with ASC have highly focused interests, which often translates into a huge body of facts and information that they are ready to share at any opportunity. Cliched as it might sound, many of the learners I have worked with enjoy researching, talking about and creating things that are related to buses and trains. Therefore, in those lessons where I have used the picture of a bus or asked them to create stories linked to these transport, their excitement becomes palpable; tangible even as some begin to stim across the classroom. As a result, tying their interests to their learning can create a positive classroom environment where students feel compelled to be at their best.

Encouraging Mistakes

It is clear that the students I have worked with have a deep desire to do well. However, if a mistake is made, the anxiety and negativity that arises from this often stops students from moving forward in their learning and their work. Therefore, a key aspect of motivation in the ASC classroom is getting students to so motivated to complete a task that they will willingly move past their failures and to try again without tantrums or meltdown. Personally, I addressed this in multiple ways. I announced my mistakes and made it clear how I could correct them. I put posters up in the classrooms. I wrote dodgy paragraphs that they had to help me fix. For some students, I gave them individual behaviour charts that said they would be given rewards like extra time on the computer if they were able to try again after a mistake. Consequently, motivation in the ASC classroom isn’t about just the desire to do well but the desire to keep going after you’ve failed.


For some reason, praise isn’t very natural for me. It’s something so simple that I often have to remind myself of but praise goes such a long way. So many of our ASC learners often struggle with low self esteem. They reach so easily for the negative because so often and everywhere, they might feel that they don’t fit or belong. Therefore, just by praising what they have done can produce enormous benefits not just in the lesson at hand but in future classes. And of course, praise doesn’t only come from the adults. Give them a chance to plan and deliver presentations and poetry readings. Watch as their performance brings joy and rounds of rapturous applause, you’ll see them light up and know that they are wonderful. And yes, send postcards home, notes in their planners and phone calls homes. You’ll see the pride they feel as they share with their friends or whisper a quiet thank you. So yes, praise is so important to increase a child’s desire to do things. It’s a simple and beautiful strategy that we can never afford to lose.


Clearly, these are only a handful of strategies. There are so many other great aids that we can use as teachers to motivate our learners. The beauty is always to realise that each learner is different and they come with different wants and desires. However, by being skilful and intent on learning about each of the students, we can tap into the things that motivate them and in so doing, help them to secure better outcomes.