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We’ve teamed up with teacher and podcaster Craig Barton to create a podcast series which lifts the lid on how exams are developed.
Find out how exam questions are created, discover what happens behind the scenes at AQA, and get to the heart of the latest issues as teachers bring us their stories and experiences, direct from the classroom.
Listen to every episode right here, or on your favourite podcast app. Then be sure to come back and check out the extra resources complementing each of the main episodes.
© AQA 2019
Summer bonus: episode 3
Published: 9 September 2019
As the new school year begins, what goes on behind the scenes to make sure the start of term goes smoothly for teachers?
In this Inside Exams episode, find out what AQA employees do to help prepare schools for a successful academic year.
Featured in this podcast
Andrew Taylor – Head of Curriculum for Maths at AQA
David Morgan – Director of Markets at AQA
Carly Holmes – Product Development Manager at Exampro
Ian Rodmell – Curriculum Support Manager for Languages at AQA
Mike Harrison – Events Portfolio Lead at AQA
Steve Vear – Head of Resource Management at AQA
Craig Barton: Hello, it’s me, Craig Barton. After nearly 15 years of teaching I know all too well how just how exciting and nerve wracking the start of a new school year can be.
So, to make sure you feel as supported as possible over the next few months, I've tracked down the people at AQA who’s job it is to help you prepare for the academic year ahead.
Andrew Taylor: My names Andrew Taylor, I'm head of the curriculum team in mathematics at AQA. I've worked at AQA for 18 years now and prior to that I was a teacher of mathematics and head of mathematics for 17 years.
So, I guess for us it starts at the time of the first exam, so it started back in May, June. Because our job is mainly about talking to and working with teachers, then we don’t get to see the exam papers until about the same time as teachers do. So, from, from the first exam we’re looking at the papers, we’re forming our impressions, very often we do it, sit and do the papers and start to think about where the questions might come from teachers in the autumn.
We’re looking on Twitter, we’re getting feedback from teachers, we take the papers to our expert panel, so all the time we’re, we’re gathering insight into the summer series. So, we’ll go along to some of the marking meetings and get a sense of how that’s going, and then I guess the work really starts after grade awarding, which is, kind of, the end of July. So, we know where the grade boundaries are, we know all the data about how each question has performed and so then we start to analyse that and think about how we’re going to present those findings to teachers in the autumn so that straight after results, as soon as schools go back, we’re ready with a package of insights and reflections on last summer that we can talk to teachers about.
When I was teaching it was a mixture of always excitement and anticipation, particularly when, when you were picking up new classes. One of my great pleasures as a teacher was, was year seven students coming in and working with them and beginning to get to know them. But it's also a time, particularly as a head of department, which I was for eight years, of kind of reflecting and thinking about what we did well, where we were successful, where we can be even better next time.
But again, as a teacher there’s so much going on in September, it seems very quickly that last years exams were a long way off.
David Morgan: Hello, my name is David Morgan and I'm the Director of Markets at AQA.
So, our focus is on helping teachers make sense of the exam series that students have just sat, and use those lessons to prepare for the next years exams.
So, what does it look like for us at the moment? Well after a quiet period for us over summer in terms of supporting customers directly, we’ve been working really hard over summer preparing for autumn, that’s our, that’s our really peak period in terms of providing support to customers.
Planning for this autumn actually starts at the end of last summer, when we listen to the feedback and review, what worked and what didn’t. We worked to offer a suite of services that provide increasing levels of detail to teachers and schools through autumn that allow them to learn the lessons and go forward.
So, we have a range of activities. Kind of at the top, the broadest level we have videos produced by our curriculum experts, they give a really high-level summary of the view from an overall GSCE or overall A-level perspective. We also produce insight reports for most of our subjects that give a really quick guide to results nationally and they're supported by webinars that again, give the national picture trends over time, 2019 grade boundaries and so on. So, giving increasing levels of detail.
And of course, all of that is supported by our relationship managers and our curriculum colleagues within AQA who are out working with supporting teachers all year round.
So, to ensure the start of the year is smooth, the key for us is really listening to feedback and learning from that, particularly from things we did last year. I’d really encourage everyone teaching AQA qualifications, or thinking of teaching AQA qualifications to really make use of what's on offer, to get the most out of the support that’s available to build on where they’ve had success this year, and identify areas for focus for further improvement next year.
Carly Holmes: My name is Carly Holmes and I'm a Product Development Manager for Exampro, which means that I look after everything that we produce for secondary schools from our question banks to our interactive exemplars and MERiT, our mock mark entry tool.
So, in August we produced exemplars for English language and English literature and we will be promoting those in September and October so that teachers can use those with their mocks, and for training, for CPD, for NQTs and teachers that are new to the specifications. And, also, we know that teachers want to prepare for the school year in September and October. So, using our question banks to prepare all of their topic tests or end of term tests for the up coming year, sharing those with the rest of their department.
So, we do all of that development in August so that they can do that in September, October, so, it's really supporting teachers. I think for our education team, our previous lives as teachers are incredibly important, so everyone in our education team has been a teacher in a former life. I was an English specialist and we have science and primary specialists in our team as well. So, that’s why the interactive exemplification is so important for me because I know that as a newly qualified teacher and also as a team leader, they were incredibly important as a resource to make marking, moderation, mocks, student progress, all of those things much more achievable for my colleagues and for my students, knowing that we are saving time for teachers through everything we do, really makes us get up in the morning. That is key to us.
Ian Rodmell: My name is Ian Rodmell, I'm the Curriculum Support Manager for Languages at AQA. So, the start of the academic year over the summer, we, one of our main activities is working with the AQA relationship managers who deal with a lot of the teachers that we work with, setting up a modern languages network group meetings, we’re always trying to expand our MFL teaching networks where, wherever we possibly can, to reach as many teachers as we can, we can get out to, to support them and get feedback about the year. [This will support they think they need] for the coming year.
We offer a free presentation each year actually, to groups of teachers all over the country with… a typical way it works is with a host school inviting local teachers in the area to come along and to make up a good-sized group. And we then focus on looking back at the previous summer series of exams and perhaps more importantly, looking forward to the next year. As well as that we do a lot of the sessions for trainee languages teachers at universities right across the country down from Brighton right up to Newcastle, and these sessions were also really well received last year and we hope they go down even better this year.
We are also preparing for a number of conference, annual conferences at this time of year. So, the London Language Show, the Pixel Conference and also the annual Language World Conference which, so we’re thinking about materials and what sort of goodies we want to take to the stand to give out.
Last year we had, we went to the London Language Show, for the first time for a few years actually, and after a bit of initial panic when we arrived to find that the, the stand which had been beautifully set up in advance of us arriving, the table had collapsed and scattered all the materials everywhere all over the floor, just a few minutes before everybody was due to arrive. But apart from that, it went, after that it went, much scurrying around it went very well and it was really, really busy, and the stand was virtually stripped bare after three days, which was fantastic. So, there was a lot of interest in what we’re doing.
Again, as with previous years, we’re really looking forward to meeting and talking to lots of languages teachers this year, and hopefully be able to help them and provide advice as we go along.
Mike Harrison: I'm Mike Harrison and I am a Events Portfolio Lead. We offer a significant suite of courses at the beginning of the year, well actually the planning to start’s quite well in advance. So, we actually look, probably, sometimes a year, a year and a half in advance as to, well, what kind of courses do we think teachers are going to need? But we don’t know if there’s any, going to be any specific trends or whether or not there’s actually anything that is going to be coming out of summer exams that will mean that we’ll have to create some new styles of courses very quickly.
However, what we do have is the feedback events in autumn, they're a standard. We also have what we call for getting started events, so they're pretty much what it says on the tin. It’s designed, not specifically for NQTs, but they are at the forefront of our minds and it's also for those new teachers who are probably coming over from other exam boards, or who are new to teaching the specification.
These courses are a general introduction to AQA, the spec, how it's taught, In and around September we’ve currently got the suite of feedback events that are coming up in the autumn term, these events will look at the summer performance and look at the summer papers, and we’ve done quite a lot of actual development already. This started probably back in June time, so we had quite lengthy discussions at the time as to what these events look like, what's the purpose, what's the objective and what we’ve tried to do is create a more condensed two-hour online event for teachers for the autumn term.
Depending on whether or not you're an NQT or depending on whether or not you are an experienced member of staff with numbers of years of experience under your belt. I still think the most important thing that a teacher needs to have at the beginning of the year is clarity. The clarity of perhaps what they're looking to deliver, how they're going to deliver it and ultimately how it's assessed. If a teacher isn’t clear about the end goal and what they're looking to do, they're going to struggle. So, what we try and do in an event is try and supplement that by giving them additional knowledge and understanding in around those areas that they may be unfamiliar with.
If we, in events, can develop and devise courses that provide slightly, or perhaps significant change to a teachers teaching, teachers insight, that’s ultimately where we’re trying to get to. September tends to be, and October tends to be a very important transition from the new year into then spring teaching, if we can provide teachers with a platform to develop, that’s ultimately where we’re trying to get to.
Steve Vear: My name is Steve Vear and I'm the Head of Resource Management based here in Guildford. Within resource management a typical set of activities at this time of year, in September, October would be two-fold really. One is to finish off the series we’ve just come out of, very important to make sure that our examiners are getting paid for the work they’ve done previously. And also having a look at to see those examiners who want to return to us, feedback from team leaders in terms of how they're teams have worked and some of the learnings that we can take into the next exam series.
So, we’re very much reviewing where we’ve come from. But the biggest piece of work, probably, is getting ready for the new exam series and that is reaching out to all the examiners that we’ve used previously to see who wants to come back and work with us. But a lot of activity working closely with our recruitment team to find new examiners that want to come and help us. We’re getting ready to send out our first set of contracts in around October time, so the engine, sort of, does really start from that point and just keeps getting bigger and faster as we go on into the months that follow.
Listening to our associates, the people that have been examining for us either for a long time or those associates that have been examining us, for us for the first time in the previous series, is actually really, really important and we don’t assume how their experience has been. We’re keen to make sure that we’re learning both in terms of how our processes work, in terms of [how] we on board, the examiners, the training and support we offer them, because clearly we not only want to retain our current examiners and give them a good experience, we also want them to be able to tell a good story about how AQA take care of examiners, so that if they’ve got friends in the industry, fellow teachers and the like, that actually might be interested in also becoming examiners with us.
We find that teachers get a great deal of benefit from becoming an examiner, it helps them to ultimately deliver and it's their words rather than mine, deliver the spec in a slightly different way or with a bit more of an insight with regard to how things really work from an exam board perspective. And lots of teachers obviously are heavily invested in their continual professional development as well, so it sort of crosses those, those two things off.
But the associates that I also speak to really get something out of being part of something much bigger, so knowing they're helping delivering an entire qualification across the country, for some of our associates it actually is a really big thing. So, we’re always on the lookout for teachers that want to examine for the first time, and there’s lots of information on our examiner vacancy page on our website.
Craig Barton: As for me, well, at the beginning of the new school year I like to do two things. Firstly, I try so hard to learn all my students first names as quickly as possible. I know it sounds like a dead small thing, but I’ve found it makes a huge difference. Firstly, from a behaviour management point of view, saying, ‘Oi, Charlie’, is far more effective than saying, ‘Oi you with the glasses and the brown hair, will you just be quiet’.
And secondly just on a relationship basis, students, I find, really warm to the fact that you’ve put the effort in to learn their first names and it’s sowing the seeds of that connection that you're going to forge over that coming 12 months.
And the second thing I do, and this is something I've, I've started to do over the last kind of four to five years of my school career, is I start teaching as soon as possible. I don’t tend to do any of these ice-breakers or fun lessons or something a bit different for at the start of the year, I just crack straight in to the good old fashioned mathematics and I feel this helps set the expectations, and to set the tone that we’re going to be learning something this year. And as soon as kids start to appreciate that, but also, start to feel successful, start to think, oh, I'm getting this, I find it just helps make a smoother transition into the start of academic year.
Anyway, I hope that’s given you some new ideas to take you into the new school year. Good luck and I’ll talk to you soon.