Paul Greene is the head of science at Marine Academy, Plymouth. In 2021, he carried out a project with the support of Elevating Chemistry in order to support year 11 GCSE students during the pandemic

Tell us about the project you carried out with support from the Royal Society of Chemistry this year?

We divided up year 11 into subject-specific tutor groups and identified a third of the year who needed extra help with their science and specifically chemistry. These students were placed into a Higher science tutor group and a Foundation science tutor group. We then purchased revision guides and workbooks which helped us create a high-quality, structured tutor programme while saving me and the other chemistry teacher time by making sure we some high-impact resources that helped push students to achieve the grades they should have been able to achieve. We started the tutor time sessions when we came back to school in March 2021 and carried on until the exam period in May. The other students in the year who weren’t in the science tutor groups were still given the revision guides, and in science lessons the guides were often referred to, so it was a one-stop shop for students to make sure they had the quality of content they needed for their exams. This was also important because we couldn’t be sure of what the students had done in year 9 because the whole science team was new for this cohort and hadn’t been in the school long before Covid hit us.

With the subject tutor sessions you set up a structured process. What was this?

On a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday the students would have specific topics to cover in the 30-minute tutor time. They would have 10 minutes to read through and digest as much as possible from the revision guides, 10 minutes to go through the corresponding questions in the workbook and then 5–10 minutes to reopen the revision guides and self-mark, self-check and self-correct. This helped them identify their own gaps in their learning. Normally you’d circulate and see who was struggling with what or collect books in and check manually. But with the Covid-19 rules, the onus was more on the students. As much as I was watching them do it, it wasn’t as close up as I would normally like.

What was the effect of the intervention on your students?

The TAG results have demonstrated that this resource did make a difference to a lot of students. We had science mocks in November and it was identified that chemistry was the weakest of the three sciences. In the May exams, for the comparable exams, there was a huge jump – more so than I would have expected if it was just through normal lessons, and especially with a big chunk of online learning between January and March.

Over 90% students increased their grades between the November mocks and the May exams. Normally we would have expected about a 1 or maybe 1.5 grade increase between November and May exams, but not a 2 or 2.5 grade increase, and we saw a large number of students achieving these kinds of increases.

Another benefit was that we have eight students going on to study A-level chemistry, whereas we had four last year which dropped to two. I don’t know for sure if that was directly because of this project, or because the quality of teaching improved, but the project certainly helped.

For those students going on to A-level, they have now already done some independent learning, and they know how to pull information from the textbook. There is an expectation at A-level that students read a bit more around the subject, so this has helped to prepare them for that a bit more.

What other additional skills did the initiative teach your students?

Definitely self-regulation. And also literacy. Usually they have a lot of information thrown at them verbally, but this time it had to be them searching for the information, which increased their skimming and scanning skills. The variety of questions in the books gave them practice at a huge range of skills – numerical, graphical, working scientifically, practical techniques … The practical questions were particularly valuable because they gave them a chance to think, what are the independent variables, what are the methods, how can you increase reliability, precision? Those skills you’d expect to develop in a practical lesson, but which we couldn’t with the restrictions and numbers of students that we had.

What was the effect of the intervention on you as a teacher?

It saved me a lot of time and stress. I didn’t need to spend hours preparing high-quality resources which would have the desired impact. And I didn’t have to put that on other teachers either. So other teachers in the department also benefited because the tutor time was all pre-planned, pre-mapped and really easy to chunk up.

It had an effect on the students in the tutor time as well, because there was a consistent format and they knew what they were doing.  And this led to better behaviour leaving the classroom and going to other classes. Even if it wasn’t science as the next lesson, they knew the expectations and calmly left and got on with the work. It focused the tutor time into more of a tutorial, rather than a form session. And that alleviated my stress and worry.

There are lots of non-specialist chemistry teachers in your department. What was the effect of the project on them?

It’s definitely boosted their subject knowledge for GCSE chemistry. Some of the things that we as chemists would take for granted, they’ve understood a bit more from that. Especially the chemistry-based terms, and the use of those terms. It’s also helped them knowing there’s a high-quality resource they can depend on and which is at an appropriate level for teaching GCSE chemistry. Within the books, the content is brought down to a student understanding level. And this is helpful as it gives a benchmark for student understanding.

Will you be carrying on with any of these interventions beyond the length of the project?

The subject based tutor time structure is being used again. We’ve just decided who needs English, maths or science extra tuition following on from year 10 into year 11. So this resource will carry on into next year, because we’ve seen such good results and it gives dedicated time to help those students. The revision guides can be reused and we’re counting up how many students will be in the tutorial time groups, and they’re going to purchase some of the workbooks for these students.

Maths are going to use the same format as science for their tutor time sessions next year. They’ve purchased books and corresponding workbooks, and are going to be doing exactly what we’ve been doing with 10 minutes of reading, 10 minutes of questions and 10 minutes of self-marking and self-help.

What was the most beneficial thing about taking part in this project?

Being able to purchase resources that we wouldn’t have been able to purchase in a normal year. And being able to do that saved time for planning and photocopying, etc.

What advice would you give to other teachers looking to do something similar in their own school?

Try not to stress about it. Give the students their due. They know how important it is, and they’re already under a lot of stress. So keep it nice and calm, and make it a positive learning environment. Give ownership to students.

Consistency is also important, so that it doesn’t matter which class or teacher students have, as they should have the same opportunities and resources to help them. Keeping a consistent format also means the students know what to expect, and so they can plan for that. And they know that if something happens and they can’t come into school, they know what they need to do.

Elevating Chemistry

Applications are now open for Elevating Chemistry funding, giving schools in the UK and Ireland the opportunity to apply for either £2000 (€2200) for a one-year project or for £3000 (€3300) for a two-year project to help young scientists thrive in the post-lockdown classroom.

Find out more