GCSE Computing (legacy spec) exam revision practice

With the run up to exam season well and truly underway it’s time to consider how best to support students. The answer? Practice, practice, practice.

To help students I’ve gone back through the available past papers and collated exam questions (and mark schemes) into topics so that students can practice questions for specific topics. Each section contains:

  • A knowledge organiser for students to self evaluate their starting point for each topic.
  • Key vocabulary that they need to remember.
  • Past paper questions by topic for practice.
  • Mark scheme to check their answers.

This is just one of several strategies that students will use to aid their learning over the next few months.

Download A451 GCSE Computing practice booklet here: [.pptx] [.pdf]

Stop disadvantaging the disadvantaged // Some practical tips for teaching & learning.

There are no shortcuts or golden tickets. Get teaching right first. [Sir John Dunford]

Education is not just for the elite. It is for everyone regardless of the circumstances into which they are born. In order to ensure students are every background get the same opportunities as everyone else, teachers have to pay meticulous attention to disadvantaged students for it’s those students who stand to gain the most from effective teaching and learning.

‘Get teaching right’ or ‘quality first teaching’ gets mentioned a lot when talking about ‘closing the gap’ between disadvantaged students and their peers but what does this actually mean? Saying these things repeatedly is not overly useful – it doesn’t encourage teachers to change their teaching habits or reflect on their practice. Should teachers be doing things differently for disadvantaged students in lessons day to day? Probably not, but disadvantaged students should be at the top of a teachers thought process when teaching as it’s these students who stand to gain the most from teaching that increases subject knowledge and provides lots of opportunities to bring that information to mind.


What does it mean to be disadvantaged?

Dr Nicholls has a great insight into disadvantaged students here. He talks about the need to disrupt the loop of unequal outcomes for disadvantaged students and has come up with a list (this does not assume all disadvantaged students are affected by these things) that highlights some of the key factors that may identify a young person as disadvantaged…

Another significant factor that relates to learning is that disadvantaged students tend to arrive at secondary school (and primary school) with a lower number of words in their vocabulary and a distinct lack of cultural knowledge (compared to their peers) which restricts their understanding and delays their progress. Joe Kirby makes a great argument for scientific based curriculum design here that would certainly help close the knowledge gap for disadvantaged students.


What can teachers do day to day?

Routines. A lack of routine can disrupt the start of a lesson, waste time handing out books, lead to confusion and a general misunderstanding of expectations in a classroom, all of which will affect learning for students. Consider:

  • How will students enter your classroom and what will they need to do upon being seated? For example what if the expectation was that students had 30 seconds to enter and get seated and then immediately completed a short quiz of 4 or 5 questions that tested their knowledge of lesson content from last week, last month, last term and last year? The accumulative effect of this interleaved approach on learning could increase a students knowledge over time whilst providing a smooth start to the lesson that focuses on learning from the outset.
  • Also consider your routines/expectations for:
    • getting students to be silent.
      • TRY: ‘3,2,1, eye contact’ and explain to students that once you get to 1 all students should have eye contact with you. This is a great way of getting students attention. Be persistent, habits don’t form over night.
    • questioning and how students should respond [see below].
    • handing out books / resources – what’s the most time efficient way to do this? Are students trained in this so that it becomes automatic? Every second counts!
    • circulating the room whilst students are working? Do you check in on disadvantaged students first?
    • working environment during a task – what is the default noise level? Purposeful, directed talk amongst students is useful for developing understanding but when this is not part of the task do students need to talk? A noisy classroom makes it difficult to concentrate for long periods of time.

Directed questioning. No reasonable person would expect a teacher to know every disadvantaged student that they teach (especially with large cohorts) so use your annotated seating plan.

  • TRY:
    • Don’t be afraid to have your seating plan in your hand whilst questioning and use it to ensure disadvantaged students get questioned regularly. I’ve seen teachers use this strategy in my own school to great effect.
    • Use the no opt out strategy from TLAC – don’t allow any students (let alone disadvantaged to simply say ‘I don’t know.’ Give them wait time, let them look over their notes before attempting answer. Circle back to them to ensure they have understood.
    • Use ‘no hands up’ when questioning. This blog from the Learning Scientists highlights the negative affect ‘raising hands’ can have on student performance… Asking students to raise their hand to signal their achievement (when they knew an answer) highlights differences in performance between students, making it more visible. This can lead to students in lower social classes, or with lower familiarity with a task, to perform even worse than they would have.

Frequent quizzing. As already stated this is a great routine for getting students into a class and settled whilst also benefitting their learning. As Joe Kirby suggests in his blog, we have over 100 years of scientific studies that frequent testing is the best way to disrupt the curve of forgetting. The best thing about low stakes quizzing is that teachers don’t need to grade, track or spend hours marking them. They can be self-marked by students as teachers explain the answers and knowledge gaps can be addressed immediately.

  • TRY: For the next six weeks instead of your planned starters try quizzing students at the beginning of each lesson using the ‘last week, last month, last term’ approach. What do you notice about their learning? What if students were quizzed at the beginning of every lesson, every day, every term? Would that help balance out the knowledge deficit? 

Modelling. When teaching it’s important to model what great performance looks like in your subject and even more important that you model the process (meta-cognition) of how to approach problems / tasks. The EEF see meta-cognition as one of the most impactful learning strategies that especially helps disadvantaged students.

Feedback. This is another strategy which the EEF deems to have high impact on student performance. The most important thing about feedback is that students do something with, ideally acting on the teachers feedback to improve their work and consolidate or extend their understanding. How can teachers be more meticulous with their feedback for disadvantaged students?

  • TRY:
    • Marking little and often rather than a whole set of books in one go. I’m not a fan of ‘marking PP books first’ as this suggests that other student books are less important or may receive feedback that is of less quality then the books marked first – which is wrong.
    • Try whole class feedback that addresses common misconceptions.
    • When conducting a feedback lesson have your annotated seating plan in your hand and visit the disadvantaged students frequently to ensure they have understood and are acting upon your feedback.

Read. Encourage students to read lots. Make it part of your lessons and teaching rather than an ‘add on’. As Katie Ashford describes, a good reading lesson should follow these principles…

  1. In any lesson, reading should primarily be for comprehension. Pupils need to understand what they are reading, and so the teacher should pause at appropriate moments and check for understanding.
  2. Reading is an opportunity to improve pupils’ fluency and ability to read with expression. Teachers should therefore model good reading and ask pupils to read aloud (year 7s love this, so get them into that habit then- it’s harder as you go up the school, in my experience).
  3. Reading is an excellent opportunity to improve pupils’ vocabulary. Teachers should pause to explain the meaning of key words, and may want to give further examples of new words used in context.

A list of strategies for reading in lessons can be found here.

TRY: As part of explaining a new concept give students a a passage of text to read that explains the concept (perhaps with a diagram if appropriate) to compliment your explanation. This could be read as a class or individually. If this habit is formed over a time it could help increase student vocabulary, fluency and understanding whilst enabling them to read outside of their normal experience (e.g. scientific articles, classical literature, e.t.c.).



Image: @gapingvoid

The thing that does make a difference, not just for disadvantaged students but for all students is effective teaching and learning. The challenge for teachers is ensuring that disadvantaged students get overexposed to this every lesson as it is those students who stand to gain the most. Be bold. Be courageous. Have relentlessly high expectations of all students. Form effective habits and don’t leave anything to chance. We only get one chance to help all students access the opportunities they all deserve.

“To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages today that determine success–the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history–with a society that provides opportunities for all.” [Malcolm Gladwell]



Gratitude is one of the most powerful qualities human beings possess and also one of the most powerful opportunities to improve another persons well being. It’s a small gesture that goes an extremely long way in helping people understand that they have made a difference. In schools a huge range of people make a significant difference every day and it’s this collective purpose that makes a school a great place to not only work but dedicate yourself to meaningful work; the least young people deserve. But how often to we say thank you? Probably not enough.

Over the last three weeks I’ve spent lunch duty talking to students about gratitude and asking if they would like to show gratitude towards a member of staff within the school. This was an idea I borrowed from Micheala school having seen some of the thank you notes from students to teachers, posted online. To capture this I put together a simple gratitude slip which I asked students to fill out. Some of the responses from students have been truly remarkable – they continue to surprise me everyday in the most amazing ways. Here’s a few examples:


In a final staff get together before breaking up for the Christmas holidays I’ll be handing out over 200 gratitude slips to staff from grateful students. It’s been a fascinating experience talking to students about who they would like to thank and why. It’s made me reflect on the many people I need to thank as a senior leader in the school but also in my life – my parents, siblings, friends, colleagues (who inspire and challenge me daily) and the remarkable teachers I had when I was at school.

Gratitude should not end with a few notes at the end of a busy term. Gratitude is the very essence of a purposeful life that should be the foundation of every school ethos.

To all the people that have helped, guided, challenged and supported me over the years – THANK YOU!

Frequency of feedback – is there a better way?

Marking and feedback is a hot topic at the moment following further guidance from Ofsted that they don’t expect to see a particular type or frequency of marking/feedback on student work – it’s for schools to decide what is the best method to help students improve.



One of the biggest groans from any teacher will be the frequency at which they are expected to mark and give feedback (usually written comments with coloured pen responses) to students. This is generally dictated by a schools marking/feedback policy. Verbal feedback is probably the most useful type of feedback as the frequency of this is relentless on a day to day basis. But what about the frequency of assessed student work…

Should the frequency of feedback be dictated by a central policy?

A quick poll on Twitter suggests this approach is common practice. But are we wrong to adopt this approach?


What are the advantages for dictating the frequency of feedback in a policy?

  1. It may encourage some consistency and ensure it happens with some regularity.
  2. It may be easier to check that it’s happening.

What are the potential drawbacks?

  1. It potentially creates artificial assessment opportunities that meet the frequency (as laid out in school policy) rather than assessing and giving feedback where appropriate to aid and improve learning.
  2. Its a huge workload for teachers especially in subjects such as humanities where you might teach an entire year group and have to mark / provide feedback for 100s of books every few weeks. The amount of work required here is likely to diminish the effect of feedback.
  3. It may promote a culture of valuing the evidence of marking / feedback instead of having a broader understanding of how feedback helps students to progress their learning.
  4. Teachers become confused with the idea that working endless hours to evidence marking (often more than a school policy dictates) is whats requires to show they care about student learning (when it may well be holding it back).

Are we wrong about stipulating the frequency at which teachers mark and give feedback to students? Is this having a detrimental effect on workload and staff wellbeing? Should we allow teachers to mark/feedback more than a policy dictates?

What could we do instead?

What if the frequency of feedback was directed by departments at critical points during sequences of lessons where it will enable teachers to understand more about student performance and enable them to give useful feedback on student performance? This could be planned into a schemes of work by identifying in meticulous detail what will be assessed, how feedback will be communicated and when students will be given time to act on the feedback from the teacher. It might look something like this in the first instance…

Long term (reduce teacher workload increase student learning):


The different colours represent different topics. ‘A’ represent an assessment. ‘F’ represents a lesson dedicated to students acting on feedback. This is just an example to illustrate a point and would require a little more thought!

The long term plan above shows where assessment takes place in sequence with learning over a long period of time rather than every 3 weeks (or some other arbitrary number). This could reduce teacher workload by specifying in detail when assessment, feedback take place (teachers should do no more or less) and potentially make marking/feedback more impactful for student learning. It would give clarity of the amount of marking/feedback to teachers, middle leaders and senior leaders. The focus for development could then be on the quality/effect of the feedback on student learning rather than the amount of feedback given.

These assessments could also be accumulative so that they build knowledge over time:


Short term (reduce teacher workload increase student learning):

  • Verbal feedback every lesson, in the moment close to student learning – correcting common misconceptions and modelling great performance /meta-cognitive approaches to tasks.
  • Rather than ‘flashy starters’ embed retrieval practice into the beginning of every lesson as routine to help build memory. Teachers can address gaps immediately (whole class feedback), re-teach and ask students to re-draft / improve work every lesson (without having to mark). This also allows you to interleave knowledge over long periods of time (the retrieval practice doesn’t necessarily have to synchronise with the main objective of the lesson).

An example of using retrieval practice at the beginning of a lesson. Testing knowledge from 3 weeks ago. Another strategy could be to ask 3 questions based on… ‘Last week, Last month, Last year.’

What about the mock exams?

With the rise in the number of mock exams students sit (regular testing is not something I immediately oppose) across key stages, how would the marking and feedback of practice papers fit in? If the purpose of sitting these practice papers is to generate a grade/score then there’s no getting away from marking them. But the amount of information they yield about what students know and don’t know could provide weeks of possible feedback on different bits of knowledge which might reduce the frequency of marking. For example if year 10 sit a mock exam in the first week of term 2 and it takes 2-3 hours to mark a set of papers, provide question level analysis and input data, then that time invested should replicated in the amount of work students have to do in response to the gaps in learning identified by the mock exam. This could manifest itself as a series of homework tasks, retrieval practice starters or entire lessons (D.I.R.T.) given over to improving knowledge. The amount of feedback a teacher could give over the coming weeks could mean that they are not required to mark (written comments, e.t.c.) any further work for the rest of that term.

In summary there’s an opportunity to…

  • create a system that not only increases the amount of quality feedback students receive (which will in turn progress their learning) but contribute to reducing teacher workload so that students experience more happy and energised teacher.
  • clear the murky waters of ‘book scrutinies’ and have real clarity from each department about what is the best method / frequency of feedback within a specific domain of knowledge, that aids learning. This could be evaluated regularly to ensure that the type/frequency of feedback stipulated by the department is having the desired effect and ensuring that all students are improving their work.
  • clarify for students, teachers, middle and senior leaders precisely when and how feedback will occur inline with what students are learning and in a way that will best serve a particular domain of knowledge.

*UPDATE: 11/12/2016*

I asked Sean Harford (Ofsted National Director of Education) via Twitter for his thoughts and this was his response…


Thanks for clarifying Sean!


Homework: Is it worth it? Probably.

If homework is ‘a blind act of faith’

If completing homework is different to completing classwork…

If research suggests is has minimal impact on student learning…

Is it worth the hassle?

‘A blind act of faith.’

Tom Bennett eloquently described homework recently as a blind act of faith. Think about that for a moment. It’s probably true. Homework is set and the moment it is teachers are making assumptions that students have the following:

  • time & space at home to complete the work.
  • the necessary resources (i.e. computer / internet access, pens, pencils, e.t.c.).
  • the background knowledge to understand and attempt the task.
  • somebody to help.
  • see the value and have the motivation / desire to attempt the task.

The response to these assumptions will vary from student to student and for some students the responses will vary at different points during the school year. With this in mind it’s hard to anticipate what return on learning teachers and students will get. It’s for these reasons (listed above) that homework tends to be very different to work carried out in class, as teachers can provide / support students to complete tasks. It’s also for these reasons that a gap can open up between students who have these conditions in places and those that don’t.

Homework also has an impact on family time. This is something outside of the schools control. It’s also time that cannot be refunded. If homework is not scheduled by the school across the curriculum it can lead to huge amounts being set all at once followed periods or little or no homework. How does this help student learning and wellbeing?


Twitter poll on the amount of homework students are expected to complete each night.


Tom mentions a couple of bits of research in his post regarding the effectiveness of homework on learning and although some studies suggest a positive impact, it appears to be variable at best. With this in mind why do schools put some much effort into setting / marking homework if there’s little return on student learning? The question to ask is: under what conditions is homework useful, effective, yields some return on student learning?

Quality of homework?

This is something I have fallen foul of early in my teaching career, setting weird and wonderful homework tasks with little regard for student learning. Tom Bennett perfectly sums up the dangers of losing sight of the purpose of homework here:

Writing a poem about how you felt about litter was one of my favourites, but there were countless other examples. Writing a letter from Jesus about what it was like to be on the cross. Making “wanted” posters for Mr Hyde for English teachers. Colouring in the Great Fire of London for history. Writing scripts for roleplays about Greek medicine. Building volcanoes out of paper mache for geography. I mean, come on. These kind of activities indicate a purposelessness that we need to say goodbye to for ever in teaching. Set meaningful homework, or not at all. It’s their time you’re wasting.

Discovery homework and tasks that don’t relate directly to student learning are of questionable relevance. Part of the problem here could relate back to a schools homework policy that puts pressure on teachers to set regular homework to meet a frequency target rather than when it’s needed to aid learning. Also, is there an agreed standard for homework or are teachers left to their own devices to set whatever they like under the broad umbrella of ‘homework’? Would less teacher autonomy here actually benefit student learning and decrease teacher workload?

A possible solution?

I’m not against homework and set it regularly, but with it being a blind act of faith what can schools do to improve its return on student learning?

  • Practice. Use homework time for students to practice (quizzing, reading, writing, maths) rather than extensively challenge them (especially when teachers are unable to guarantee conditions / resources for home learning). The information we have from great organisations such as the Learning Scientists suggests that regular retrieval practice (just one example) is really useful for establishing learning and transferring information into long term memory.
  • Routine. Schools could create a homework timetable so that students, teachers & parents are absolutely clear about when homework will be set and when it will be due. I have seen this work well in schools where teachers set homework every week on the same day and have a routine for collecting homework so that it becomes part of the next lesson, which has resulted in very high completion rates from students. Other schools have adopted similar approaches but have applied this across the whole school:

Summary of homework policy / timetable at KingSolomon Academy.


Summary of Michaela Academy homework policy / timetable.

  • Reducing teacher workload. Quizzing is a great method for retrieval practice and there are plenty of systems available such as Show My Homework, Socrates (free), Edmodo (free) that allow teachers to create (and share with colleagues) self marking quizzes. These can be spaced out (and re-used) over weeks and months to aid learning. I’ve used Show My Homework in my department. We collaboratively planned 2 quizzes each per term (takes about 10 minutes to create one) and share them with each other. Show My Homework automatically marks and tracks homework completion / scores for us which enables us to focus on address the gaps in lessons.
  • Homework clubs. How can schools support students who struggle with the time, space and resources to complete homework at home? A simple solution is by offering homework clubs that enable students to access the necessary resources to complete homework.

Is homework worth the hassle? If the quality of homework yields a good return on student learning and it doesn’t create unmanageable workload for teachers, then yes it probably is. Creating a culture where students value deliberate practice is likely to develop good habits that will enable students to be successful.



High expectations & brutal honesty – are we asking the right questions?

Asking whether something works or not in education is an endless, perilous quest that normally results in argument, resentment and division. It’ll be more useful to ask “under what conditions does it work.*” The more I read about Michaela Community School the more I’m convinced that high expectations and brutal honesty are whats needed in schools to help young people exceed their expectations. It seems (from the outside looking in – I’m yet to visit) that Michaela have created the conditions that enable their core values so that students can flourish.

Following an article published in the Sunday Times, Twitter was alive with debate about Michaela’s approach. I’ve yet to visit the school (hoping to visit in early 2017) so I’m trying to keep an open mind, but have read blogs from many of their staff. Regardless of whether you agree with their approach or not, one thing that has impressed me (from the numerous blog posts/articles/presence on Twitter) is that they appear to be asking the right questions. Their answers may not fit your view of education (there are a few things I’ve read that are currently at odds with my own views) but the questions they are asking will almost certainly be useful in moving your thinking forward. If anything it’s refreshing to follow the development of a school that is challenging the status quo – committing to long term strategic goals rather than settling for short term quick wins.


Here’s a few questions (I’m sure this is just the tip of the iceberg) that Michaela has prompted me to consider:

School ethos:

  • What is the purpose of our school?
    • Can this be summed up in one phrase?
  • How is this communicated to staff, students & parents?
  • When we say ‘high expectations’ what do we actually mean (down to the detail of day to day life in the academy)?
    • What do we mean by ‘high expectations’ of:
      • Teaching?
      • Learning?
      • Uniform?
      • Behaviour?
      • Manners?
      • Communication?
      • School environment?
  • How are new students inducted into the school?
    • Is an assembly and some extended tutor time enough to train students in the detail of school rules and expectations?
    • Would allocating sufficient time (2-3 days to a week) to effective routines/rules at the beginning of the school year save time later on and reduce consistency amongst students/staff?
  • Is the school culture dialled in so that everyone is moving in the same direction?
    • Is the culture amongst staff to a level where people feel they are able to give their honest opinion and be part of the development of the school?

Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment:

  • What is learning?
    • What are the most effective learning habits for students to develop?
  • What do we mean by effective teaching? How do we know?
  • What is the best way to structure a curriculum to enable learning?
    • How is learning interleaved over time (to increased long term memory retention)?
  • How can assessment be used to challenge students and provide useful data that enables teachers to plan effective sequences of lessons?
  • What do students need to know? How is this communicated to students?
  • How do we convince students that success is achieved through a series of habits (and that anyone can achieve this)?
  • What is effective homework?
    • How often should it be set?
    • Should there be a tight whole school approach or complete teacher autonomy?
    • How will homework be monitored?
    • What happens if homework is not completed to an acceptable standard?
  • Is marking every single book an effective use of time?
  • Are teachers happy, appropriately challenged and given enough support to teach well day in day out?

Literacy & numeracy:

  • What is the most effective way to catch up students who are already behind with literacy & numeracy upon arrival?
  • How is this embedded across all subjects becoming part and partial of every lesson?
  • What is the most effective way to accelerate the progress of weaker readers?
  • What role does reading play in school, every day?
  • How do we support students to truly love reading and see it as a worthwhile use of their time?


  • What are our expectations of every student every day?
  • What systems are in place to deal with disruptive behaviour?
  • How do we ensure consistency across all staff?


  • How do we get the ‘right people on the bus’?
  • Is the school vision / value so clear that potential candidates knowingly opt in?

Approaching Michaela through the lens of ‘right or wrong’ is a waste of time. Use their model to challenge your thinking, your values / beliefs and most importantly what purposeful education is so that we can all continue to do whats best for the students. For doing precisely that I’d like to thank Michaela and its staff for making me think.

*stolen from Dylan Wiliam but couldn’t find the exact quote.


Knowledge organisers // New OCR GCSE Computer Science

Having used knowledge organisers with students for almost two years now, it’s always a great starting point when planning for a new specification of GCSE. Inspired by Joe Kirby’s post, knowledge organisers seek to…

Specify subject knowledge in meticulous detail.

I’ve written before about knowledge organisers (read more here).

In planning for the new GCSE Computer Science specification I’ve created a number of knowledge organisers (making use of the OCR specification booklet). Feel free to download, use, share, edit, e.t.c.

Paper 1 – Computer systems

Paper 2 – Computational thinking, programming & algorithms

*some of the topics have been combined into one knowledge organiser.