Inside Exams

Podcast series two now available

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Teacher Craig Barton is back with series two of Inside Exams, the podcast that gives you an access all areas pass to snoop around behind the scenes at AQA.

He’ll be meeting the people who write and mark your students’ exams, as well as pioneering teachers, to get answers to all the questions you ponder throughout the school day.

© AQA 2019

Unit Award Scheme: 12,000 paths to achievement

Series one
Bonus: Episode three | 20 May 2019

“We had to write our CVs last week at school and I was the only one who had achievements to put on my CV,  thanks to the Unit Award Scheme." – Year 8 student

Adrienne Nichols explains how AQA’s Unit Award Scheme is helping students to achieve more positive outcomes. With thousands of paths available, students are using the scheme to develop their academic and social skills.

Featured in this podcast

Adrienne Nichols – AQA Head of Unit Award Scheme


Adrienne: My name’s Adrienne Nichols, I'm Head of the Unit Award Scheme.  The Unit Award Scheme is a recording of achievements scheme, so it’s designed to record the achievements of students of all ages, all abilities, and it’s supposed to cover all their interests as well.  So we’re all about achievement.

We’re interested in what students can achieve, and that doesn't matter whether that achievement might be quite small, or it might be quite a significant achievement.  It’s not a qualification, and that means that it’s not regulated by Ofqual, so we can cover a broad range of many different subjects that you wouldn’t ordinarily cover in a qualification context.

It means that we can continually add units to our unit bank without them having to go through [long], and then the accreditation processes, so we’re regularly adding new units to the unit bank all the time.  And these are written by teachers, so it keeps the unit bank really topical and up-to-date.  As long as it provides students with a worthwhile and valid learning experience we believe anyone can achieve, no matter what their age, ability or interest.

The scheme is used with students of all abilities, so there are units ranging from pre-entry, through to entry, up through level one and two, and up to level three, and that’s why the scheme is used with so many different types of centres.

Youth Services are using the Unit Award Scheme, with students who may be getting involved with gangs.  Students are writing units that actually are concentrating on more positive outcomes, so work related learning for example, or developing their social skills, their soft skills, but they’re also writing units that are recognising the dangers of getting involved in gangs and knife crime, so that students can actually identify that and can understand and realise that they have choices to make.

They can recognise the dangers and hopefully they will avoid getting involved in things like knife crime.  And they will have the strength of character to actually say no, and look for more positive things to do with their time.  Pupil referral, units use the Unit Award Scheme to re-engage the learners in the learning, and get them ready to re-join mainstream schools.

The scheme is being used with environmental charities at the moment, and they’re using the scheme with community-based projects to improve the local green spaces.  They’re creating community-based gardens, urban gardens where people can go and enjoy, grow vegetables, enjoy the environment and the benefits for the students is that they’re improving their social skills.  They’re also developing transferrable skills, team working, they’re learning how to be punctual for work, so they’re getting themselves ready for employment.

Some of the students that were involved in community-based programmes provided us with some quotes, and so this was a year 8 student who said ‘we had to write our CVs last week at school, and I was the only one who had achievements to put on my CV thanks to the Unit Award Scheme’.

Another year 9 student said ‘I’ve got three certificates already, I want to do more and put them all in frames on my wall’.

There are a lot of units that have been written by special schools, and what they’re trying to do is enable students to progress to independent living.  So we have units for example for making a cup of tea, making a sandwich, catching a bus.  To you or I that seems very basic, but actually to somebody with special educational needs and disabilities, it’s a huge achievement to actually be able to make themselves something to eat or drink.  It enables them to understand that actually they do have the skills, they have learnt the skills to be able to progress to independent living.

We received a story from one centre about a student, their particular interest was writing.  They were quite good at telling stories, so a centre wrote a unit on … it was an English unit writing for children.  And it was aimed at students who were capable of achieving a GCSE.  So the unit was written and at the end of that, the student actually produced and illustrated a lovely story for young children.  And it was all about her experiences of being scared of the dark, being scared of being alone, scared to cross the road and that sort of thing.  So she wrote this unit with young children in mind, and was able to not only practice her writing skills, but also she was a terrific drawer as well.  So it gave her an opportunity also to illustrate the story.  And the teachers were so impressed by this, that they actually had the book published on Amazon.  And I think for this particular student, it sort of sparked an interest in writing.  I think this is something that hopefully they will then be able to pursue further, and hopefully go onto achieve their GCSEs, and who knows where it might lead in the end.

Often students say this is the first time I’ve ever received a certificate in my life, and we hear that over and over again.  And also, proud parents and guardians, so ‘my mum is really proud, she displays my certificates on the wall’, or ‘my mum has a special box where she keeps all my certificates’.  So there are some really touching stories about how the Unit Award Scheme has made such a difference, not only to the student themselves, but actually in their relationships with their parents, their peers and with their teachers as well.

There are 12,000 units for teachers to use.  Teachers have the option then to use the units as they are, or they can take a unit and they can amend that unit.  And this is what we call really bespoke learning.  So you can actually ensure that units are written with either a group of learners or a specific learner in mind, by making amends to existing units, or indeed writing your own unit.  So in special schools for example, you can have students that are taking all sorts of different units, and they might be doing units specifically around looking after themselves, looking after their home.  They might be taking units in health, so how to keep themselves healthy, exercise units.  Or they might be, with the Unit Award Scheme, it’s all about students being able to take units that are of interest to them.  So you might have one student who’s really interested in something like bird watching.  So centres can write units around that particular activity.

And we often find that centres are using the Unit Award Scheme for sort of niche activities.  There’s a lot of trust that’s built up between ourselves and the teachers and the centres, because we do rely on their professionalism, and their expertise to judge when an achievement has been made.  But also we rely on them to choose units that are going to have that sort of appropriate stretch and challenge that’s necessary because the last thing in the world is that we want students to think ‘well, this is meaningless’.

Centres can join the Unit Award Scheme anytime during the year.  They can claim for certificates at any time during the year as well.  Students receive their certificates without having to produce lengthy portfolios of coursework, or having to take tests or exams.  That’s not what it is about, the Unit Award Scheme.  We’re very much a ‘can do’ scheme, and we’re not about failure.  It’s about showing what students can achieve, recording that achievement.

There are no time limits with the Unit Award Scheme, so there’s no guided learning hours or anything like that.  A unit can be as long or as short as it needs to be.  We do say to centres ‘make sure that they’re short’, because it’s all about making them accessible to the learners, and a short unit is going to be more accessible than a very long unit that might take months to achieve.  And what we say is, it’s as long as it takes for a student to achieve a unit, so they can have as many goes as they like, you know, it’s as long as they get there in the end, and they achieve that outcome.  And it might be a unit that’s going to be taken in a day, or it could be a unit that would be taken over several weeks.

Teachers really find the Unit Award Scheme a great tool in re-engaging particularly those reluctant learners.  The student can be given a unit, so they can actually participate in their learning.  They can see all the outcomes and what they have to achieve.  And that’s really motivational because then they can record actually the progress of the learning that they’re making.

And then to be given a certificate at the end of that, once they’ve completed a unit, is a fantastic moment for the learners.  I think as a society, we all learn in different ways and that’s what the Unit Award Scheme is about.

So if this is the first time you’ve heard about the Unit Award Scheme, I hope it’s given you a flavour of actually what we can do to enable you to support your students to learn and achieve.