Inside Exams

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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

One man. One seventh of England.

Series one
Summer bonus: episode four | 14 October 2019

What is a relationship manager? In this Inside Exams podcast episode, AQA’s Nick Sandeman talks through how he can help you review the past exam series and prepare for the coming year.

Featured in this podcast

Nick Sandeman – Relationship Manager at AQA

Nick Sandeman: My name is Nick Sandeman, I am an AQA Relationship Manager, that is not marriage counselling, that is a role that tries to bridge the gap between AQA and all the services that AQA provide and schools, teachers, senior leaders in schools, so I really do manage that relationship and hope to help schools access all the different people and all the different services AQA provide.

We have a team of 11 Relationship Managers, Relationship Managers cover therefore themselves, the whole of England and we divide the country up into 11 patches, depending on the population density. So I cover the North East of England which has got some big conurbations but it’s also got some nice rural areas as well, so I cover one-seventh the land area of England with three of the biggest counties in the country of Cumbria, of Northumberland and North Yorkshire. So I have a fair few miles to do in a typical day or a typical week to cover those schools.

So it’s possible that a school asked me to visit them in Cumbria on a Monday morning and a school asked me in Monday afternoon to go and visit them in North Yorkshire and that leads for a long day. So I try and manage my diary carefully so that that doesn’t happen. But there are inevitably days when I have to travel down to North Yorkshire, across the Pennines to Cumbria, and then home again in the evening, so they are long days, but that’s part of the job and I want to be able to fit in with schools’ diaries which are much less flexible than mine, so we will try very hard to work around to make sure we can get to see people when we want to.

I would like to be able to go and see every one of the schools that I look after, that’s around 100 schools per Relationship Manager. I’d like to go and see every school at least once a year and within that visit, I’d like to see at least one person, but if I can see more than one person, that would be great. So seeing a Senior Leader to talk about policy changes that have been happening over the last few years and how they’re changing and implementing in the school.

And then talking to subject leaders, depending on the time of year, about specific issues or helping them and reminding them of various CPD events that are coming up or hub meetings that we happen to be holding in their area in the near future. So just touching base with people, making sure that they are happy with AQA.

And that doesn’t need to be a visit, we can obviously help schools out if we visit and they have to take half an hour out of their already busy time then that’s half an hour that they might not get back. If we can send a quick email or have a quick phone conversation with them, then that’s obviously a way we can help save our teachers time and also our travel time as well.

So those are useful ways that we can contact them but there’s nothing like a face-to-face visit, there’s nothing like sitting down for a cup of tea with somebody and having a conversation and seeing where it leads and making sure that they have got all they needed to get out of you by the end of that half an hour, 44 minute session.

A typical day, well there’s no such thing as a typical day, it could be as varied as seeing different teachers in lots of different departments. So we might speak to a Head of English and a Head of Science, Head of Modern Foreign Languages, and we might speak to a group of senior leaders or a single senior leader. When we’re seeing those people what we’re talking about is mostly at this time of year, the summer results and how well they’ve gone for the school.

And we are obviously hoping that they’ve got results that are as good as they can be for the school, that we are helping them sort out any issues with those results and help clarify how those results compare against national data and help them understand those results in as much detail as they can so they can learn as much from those results as possible and then hopefully make changes that they might need to make in their teaching and learning or their processes so they can get even better results the next time round.

At this time of year we often run what’s called Curriculum Clinics where we would sit for a significant period of time in school and have short 30 to 40 minute meetings with a sequence of teachers in the school from a variety of different departments, helping them analyse their subject information, their subject exam grades, their grade boundaries and so on.

So in one of those we may speak to the Head of English and talk to them about GCSE English, GCSE literature. We may then reach and speak to a Head of Science and talk to them about GCSE biology, chemistry and physics. We then switch to modern foreign languages and then start talking through the different papers of modern foreign languages. We might then want a coffee and a bit of a breather and then back into it, speaking to the GCSE Maths Team and then maybe into other subject departments as well, depending on what the school teaches with us.

I think we have to be a Jack of all trades and I think there are colleagues who probably don’t realise the sorts of knowledge that we might be asked to have on a day-to-day basis. So if I’m having a conversation with an English teacher, I need to know the structure of the English language specification and exams. I need to know an idea of the skills involved in some of the questions and where the pinch points are for the students and for the teachers in that specification.

I’ll then need to be able to switch and have a conversation with the senior leader about how a particular subject fits into the national measurements of schools, how does design technology fit into the performance measures. And so being agile enough to switch between different subject areas but also different strands of education policy means we have to have quite a broad base of knowledge.

And we have great paperwork and great support from colleagues in AQA so that we can rely on that but we also just have to have regular meetings in order to make sure we’re up-to-date with all of the things that are happening in policies and the potential implications for our schools.

So I think the thing that helps schools and that we add value for as Relationship Managers, is that we know where all that information is. Information maybe in several places on a website, so although none of the information that we have can’t be found on the web, either on AQA’s website or the DFE’s website or Ofqual website, all that information is in different places.

So even just being able to go into a school and point out where that is, is a useful thing to be able to provide for schools. But being able to have it all in one place, all in one conversation, I think is a really powerful way of being able to help people understand that information and draw threads together so they can see why a particular specification is structured the way it is, the decisions that were made by the DFE and by Ofqual several years ago that have led to a specification that we’ve put together, that then lead to an exam that’s now in front of the students. And seeing that thread and that pathway is quite valuable for customers I think.

One thing that we spend quite a lot of time on this time of year is our enhanced results analysis tool which is a really useful data analysis tool that helps schools to really pull apart their exam data and drill down to see how students have really responded to each question so that we can get a really fine detail view of their exam results and they can really focus in on the skills or the question styles or the topic content that a school might need to address in order to make even further improvements and that’s a really strong tool.

So another thing that we might do at all times of the year, but especially in the autumn term, would be to visit groups of schools, either Local Authority networks or Multi-Academy Trust groups, where we would work with a group of teachers or a group of leaders in a school to help them understand the national data to review their exam results and so on.

And it might be very similar to how we work with an individual school but of course we’re working across a diverse group of schools within a Multi-Academy Trust or working with a group of schools within a Local Authority network. And so we tend to get a richer dialogue of questions, of ideas being bounced between teachers within the group, of ways that they might want to work together as a group.

So we might need to be able to point towards good performance in a particular school and suggest that that school’s practice might be worth having a look at in more detail so they can share that practice and hopefully spread the outcomes from that improving practice across other schools.

So working with Multi-Academy Trusts, two or three schools up to 20 or 30 schools in size and the size makes a big difference. Some of our bigger Academy Trusts take a lot of working with, there’s a lot to do for them, and those 30 schools still need support within that Trust.

So it’s a complex role to work with the Multi-Academy Trusts but it’s really rewarding again when you have contacts within the Multi-Academy Trusts that you can then work with and see that work having an impact across a group of schools rather than maybe just the one-to-one relationship which is valuable but much, much more narrow.

So we do quite a lot of network meetings in the autumn term, some of those we lead ourselves and we will do networks across a wide range of subjects where we will talk to groups of schools and groups of teachers about their subject results and any issues.

But far more powerfully perhaps, is where we would invite one of our curriculum colleagues to join us at one of those meetings and that colleague would then be able to spend about an hour or an hour and a half or so, speaking with that group with their subject expertise and really answering some of those fine detailed questions about the purpose of a particular exam question or the main findings that we had from this summer’s exams. And they will be able to add nuance to it that perhaps a non-specialist, like myself, simply doesn’t have knowledge of or isn’t able to explain clearly.

Common questions that we get asked a lot, we often get asked in the summer term “What are the grade boundaries going to be for the summer exams”? And we can’t tell schools because we don’t know, we don’t write the grade boundaries beforehand. So we have to explain a lot of the process around exam and examining systems to make sure that schools understand why we can’t tell these grade boundaries beforehand and so on.

So in the autumn term the questions that we’re getting asked are “How do we compare to the national average?” “Why are our results worse this year than last year? And I’ve got a student who didn’t get this grade that we expected them to, what’s your marking like”? And we have to make sure that we can explain carefully and sympathetically that we try and mark all of our exam papers fairly and robustly and we explain the systems that we’ve got in place for doing that to try and show that actually we take that job really seriously and we’re really very good at it and it’s not an easy job when you’ve got several million scripts to deal with.

But we have systems in place to make sure that our marking is as tight as it can be and that where marking may not be up to the standard we would like it to be, we have systems in place to catch that at the time of the marking and to fix it and if something slips through the net, which inevitably occasionally it does, we’ve got a whole system of [plus] result services to deal with that and helping ensure the prime goal that we’ve goal which is to make sure the student gets the result that they deserve.

The help that they get is the fact that they get a person and a name of a person in front of them. So when a school thinks that they have an issue, I would hope that they would think “Oh Nick will know the answer to that, I’m going to pick up the phone or drop Nick an email and see if he can answer the question”.

And sure I’ll probably spend a couple of days a week answering emails and making enquiries on behalf of schools that have come in that way. I’d like to spend more time with face-to-face with people because we can often get those queries dealt with there and I like the interaction, I like seeing people. It’s a very lonely job if I was sat behind a computer all day.

So it’s definitely worth schools contacting us just to get us out of the office. But no, it’s more important that they get us out because we can hopefully help explain things in a different way, if the explanation on the website isn’t quite clear enough. Or if they’re not sure where to go next for a bit of information we can help point them in those directions and that can be quite a cumbersome email but it’s quite a nice conversation.

The thing I love most about my job is probably the variety of people I get to meet and places I get to visit. So I get, I’m really, really lucky to be able to see some amazing buildings, new builds, old, grammar schools, old 1950s buildings, brand new, modern buildings and everything in between. And I get to see the most amazing teachers who are so passionate about their job and they really, really care about the kids in front of them.

And that’s the main thing, that they are wanting to engage with AQA and any other exam boards with, they want to engage us to make sure that they can provide the very best education for the kids that they get the result that they know those kids deserve. And that gives us a lot of responsibility but a lot of satisfaction knowing that we have helped them in a small way perhaps, but we’ve helped them prepare those students to get really great exam outcomes and that feels really good at the end of a good meeting and you come out and you think “Actually, you know what, I’ve done something there that’s been of value and that teacher is going to be able to prepare students better as a result of our conversation”.