Work Life Balance

It’s been a funny old year. The press, and especially the satirists, will bemoan 2016 for Brexit, Trump, the death of every celebrity you ever loved and generally for being crap.

And most teachers would probably say that the workload has gotten worse, that balance has gotten further out of kilter, that DfE meddling has added more stress and I know that I’ve found it increasingly difficult to keep all the plates spinning.

I’ve not done as much CPD / CAS / outreach work as I’d have liked to, I’ve still not updated any of my YouTube revision videos for almost 4 years now(!) and my long term plans to tidy up and add to my various resource collections have utterly stalled. Not to mention the frequency of these blog posts.


In the last year I’ve been to France with my family (twice), seen performances of Mary Poppins (professional), Spamalot (amateur), Goodnight Mr. Tom and Blue Stockings (school), been to see racing cars, spent 3 awesome days at a music festival, attended a variety of gigs (the highlight being the Chili Peppers last night) and even run a successful Raspberry Jam for 10 months out of 12. I’ve had a great year. My daughter has started secondary, my son has flourished at college, I’ve had opportunities to spend time doing fantastic things with my fantastic family.

I’ve also lost a friend, had a health scare and am shortly to lose my eldest to university – all of which helps to add to the perspective.

Work life balance has never been so important to me. So while I struggle to get everything done, I’ve accepted that – despite being one of the good kids – I will occasionally miss deadlines. I will sometimes miss out entire tasks. I will prioritise what I can – but I will do my best by accepting my own limitations and not burning myself out.

So this Christmas I will take my to do list, I will take my marking and some of it will get done. And some of it, inevitably, won’t. But I will have a good Christmas.

And I hope you do too.

KS3 – SoW and Assessment Strategy

I’ve noticed a lot of chatter on Facebook lately about assessment at KS3 and about what to put into schemes of work / schemes of learning.

Since my department and I have spent a lot (a LOT!) of time over the last couple of years completely reworking all of the above I figured it wouldn’t do any harm to share it. It’s a team effort and includes some fantastic ideas and units for which I can take no credit at all. No warranty is given or implied and your mileage may vary!

If you want the resources with none of the reasoning or justification then just head on over to and download away. If you DO care about the justification (which I think it quite important, as it goes), then read on.

Thematic Units

For a long time we used to teach a half-term on spreadsheets, a half-term on databases, a half-term on image editing, etc. And the visit each topic again in maybe a year, maybe 18 months. This meant we could spend a good chunk of time focusing on one area, but the retention was poor.

We decided a little while ago to try more thematic units – so we have a unit about my Aunt Mabel who bought a zoo on a whim. She needs a spreadsheet to find out if she can afford to feed the animals, some image editing to create a gift voucher, a database for annual membership, etc.

When specifying the equipment needed for a new youth club the students design a floorplan, create a spreadsheet to track and adjust costs, write to their local MP, learn about networking and create a slideshow to convince the PTA to help fund it.

And so on – the key phrase for me is ‘little and often’. The disadvantage is that students don’t spend a big block of time looking deeply at the skills, so you need to remember to make sure to teach about slideshows and DTP skills, not just expect students to ‘know’ what good design looks like and what specific skills to use.

We’ve also gone for an approach that includes a fair bit of computer science (programming, binary, logic gates, algorithms) but also a lot of multimedia topics (mind maps, storyboards, image editing, comics, video editing, audio editing) and ‘traditional’ IT (spreadsheets, databases, posters and PowerPoints). This is partly because we have 3 routes at KS4 – GCSE CS, Cambridge Nationals Creative iMedia and GCSE ICT / vocational ICT to come, and also partly because we think (as a department) that our job is to help prepare students for life and for their future, not just an optional GCSE that not all will pursue.

Online vs Dead Tree submissions

Being a massive Moodler I’ve been an evangelist for online assessment for years. We’ve tried online discussions, wikis, self-marking quizzes, ePortfolios and much more. And, honestly, we never got it right.

When it comes to work scrutinies I was often tempted to drop a URL off in each box when SLT wanted the books, but ultimately I had to cave. And I admit it – the books are a better solution.

Each student gets an A4+ sized exercise book and they sometimes do work in there, but more often print off an assessed piece of work. It’s not ideal for animations, but you can include a screengrab which is usually enough to trigger a memory from circulating during the lessons and you can also encourage students to annotate or justify their work, demonstrating knowledge as well as skills. In addition, the kids can find their work and refer back to it easily. Having to negotiate a VLE once a week and expecting the kids to really understand the underlying structure isn’t as realistic as it might sound to those of us who use these systems multiple times a day and might well have computing / IT degrees.

It’s not perfect, but honestly I feel the books are the best solution I’ve used so far.

Regular Assessment / Deep Marking / WINS

The policy at my school is that we do a solid bit of marking every 5 lessons / 5 hours. This means that we don’t have to mark every piece of work, but that students are getting regular feedback throughout their studies.

The structure of the feedback has to be in the WINS format (What was good, Improved if, Next steps and then a Student response). I’ve heard of PENS in a number of schools which is very similar (Positives, Even better if, Next steps, Student response).

We also have a grading system that goes MEP – EP – BEP – UP (More than Expected Progress, Expected Progress, Below Expected Progress, UnderPerforming). This is printed on and highlighted.

Given that one of my colleagues will have 330 KS3 pupils next year we had to make the marking manageable – so we’ve produced one pre-populated WINS sheet for each unit with all of the likely comments written in and 3 differentiated questions for students to tackle that are designed to make students reflect on their work at different levels (think Bloom’s).

I wanted to avoid having students working on something for 5 lessons, then getting some feedback, then spending another lesson making improvements and resubmitting it. You end up in ever decreasing circles and lose valuable time for moving on – and with the ‘little and often’ curriculum we’ll be coming back to those skills again soon enough.

Tracking Progress / Assessment Without Levels

In order to better track progress all of the subject leaders at my place were tasked with describing the knowledge, skills and application that students would be expected to gain each term, all without using levels. These AWoL sheets are heavily skills focused for us and are broken down into the three strands of IT, Media and Computer Science. They relate directly to the unit WINS sheets and are easily attacked with a highlighter once a term.

In addition we have an overall tracking sheet with the 3 strands, each split into 2 (so IT has data handling and presenting information, Media has creativity and planning, CS has programming and technical understanding). By highlighting these at the same time as the termly sheets we can show overall progress.

It costs a bit in highlighters but saves a lot in blue, black, red, green and purple pen!

I’m not promising it’s perfect, and I would never claim this is the ‘right way to do it’ – but it’s what we’re doing and you’re welcome to use it.

If you do decide to adapt and improve it, please consider sharing and please give some credit to the team that helped put it together (Egglescliffe School Computing & ICT department, past and present).

Level 3 BTEC Nationals Information Technology

This is a summary of the Preparing To Teach course I attended in May, hosted by Pearson.

First, a little context. I teach in a school where the sixth form has an intake of around 200-230. We’ve offered Edexcel GCE Applied ICT for a long time (must be approaching 10 years now) and it’s done us, and our students, very well. There’s a heavy practical element, with 66% coursework and 33% based on two practical exams (one spreadsheet modelling and one database). We typically get students of middling ability, with some from the very top end. ICT is often seen as a 3rd or 4th A Level to complement the subjects people want to take on (with some exceptions, of course).

So, with the Applied ICT course coming to close we needed to find a new Level 3 course that is suitable for our students. Having looked at a variety of options (OCR Cambridge Technicals, what was A Level ICT, A Level Computer Science and a few others) we thought that the Pearson BTEC in IT was the best fit for our students.

Pearson have held a number of Preparing To Teach meetings, and they have a few more calendared for the near future. A few people on a Facebook group for the BTEC had asked what was said as they weren’t able to get to a meeting. So my recollections are here. I’m writing this without the aid of my notes (they’re at school and its half term, so I’m not). Errors and omissions are mine!

Course Structure

This is all available in the specification at the main Pearson site, but to summarise, we’re doing the Extended Certificate, which is equivalent to a full A Level. This includes 3 compulsory units:

  • Social Media (90GLH, internally assessed)
  • Data Handling (90GLH, practical examination)
  • Synoptic paper (120GLH, written examination)

And one of 2 optional units:

  • Spreadsheet Modelling (60GLH, internally assessed)
  • Web Design (60GLH, internally assessed)

I may have misnamed some of those units but you get the essence of it at least.

By doing the Social Media and Data Handling units in Y12, students can cash out with a Certificate (equivalent to an AS) as those are the only two units in that qualification.

There is a complicated method of calculating the overall grade based on the grade for each unit (as they’re all weighted differently), and as a newcomer to BTEC it is surprising that there is no granular scoring within a grade boundary. I’m used to GCSEs and A Levels where an extra UMS point in one unit counts towards the overall grade. Here it’s a flat score for a Pass, Merit or Distinction with no measurement of a high Pass or a low Pass. It’s a Pass.

Students do also need to pass all of the compulsory units in order to get an overall qualification.

Unit 1 – Synoptic Paper

Strange that this is referred to as Unit 1 when the board recommend that you do it last (as it’s synoptic) or at least long and thin. And it’s not needed for the AS.

The content is pretty much your standard ICT fare. Input and output devices, pros and cons of teleworking, advantages and drawbacks of networking, etc. The level of detail goes beyond GCSE level and a lot of the delegates who are currently running the older Level 3 BTEC were a little worried that their students wouldn’t necessarily do so well with the SAM written paper. Having taken plenty of kids through GCSE ICT which has exactly these kind of questions (though with less technical detail), I’m not too panicked just yet.

The paper is made up of 4 markers, 8 markers and 12 markers (plus some 6 and 10s, but stick with me).

A 4 mark question might be a simple ‘state 2 disadvantages of using 3G to access your work as a graphic designer’. Point and expand, point and expand. Straightforward stuff.

An 8 mark question might be a little more open ended, though with a similar style of question. Here the exam board recommended using PEE grids (Point – Explain – Evidence). These are standard operating procedure within our History department and I suspect English too, so kids should be used to the concept.

The 12 mark questions are your longer, essay style. Here it was suggested we look at connectives and sentence starters – although I think you might as well go the whole hog and take a good look at VCOP as a literacy strategy. It will take a little time to train the students up and it might be wise to speak to people from other departments who are already running courses with these types of exam for some good pedagogical support – but it’s manageable and less intimidating than it might seem.

Other than that, there’s not much else to say, really. There is a SAM paper on the website and it’s worth reading the spec carefully to make sure you’re covering all of the content (I’d come across a LAN, WAN and mesh before, but never a PAN).

Unit 2 (or is it 3?) – Social Media

I really like this unit. I really like this unit. It takes something the kids are aware of but don’t fully appreciate, and gets them to think about it and use it within a context. And it’s relevant.

There is a sample brief which it is recommended that centres use, though it is not even slightly compulsory to do so. The idea is to teach them some stuff on social media, and about how businesses use it and what kind of posts generate the most interaction (or ‘traction’ if you’re into corporate doublespeak). Why is Boaty McBoatface so popular? Are people more likely to look at a post with a picture, a video, a hashtag? Etc…

Then you give the students a context. The sample is about giving a presentation to a local chamber of commerce (locally we have an enterprise unit with 5 or 6 startup shops in one building , each with a 3 month lease at virtually no cost – by the end of which time they can rent somewhere with their established business or fold without going bankrupt). This lets them show off their understanding of how social media is used. The students don’t need to do the presentation, and the scenario doesn’t need to be real. A PowerPoint presentation with presenter notes (for added detail) would be sufficient.

The second part of the assignment is that the student has now been approached by one of these companies to actually manage their social media campaign for them. The students should ideally work for different companies and these can be real or made up. Parental involvement is fine, and my idea is to alter this so that students are running the social media accounts for a department within our school.

Students should do some analytical work looking at the interactions their posts have had. Some social media services will provide these, but I suspect most students will have to manually collate the date – how many likes, how many reposts, how many comments, etc.

Some people had concerns over allowing the students to have real control over social media. I can understand this, and it is a risk. I know my students well and I’m happy that with a stern briefing, much discussion and a signature on a acceptable use policy my students will be trusted to take the reigns of a real social media account. Pearson are happy for centres to run an internal social media platform (e.g. Yammer) or even something totally made up (e.g. Fakebook). Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles can be heavily locked down, and it is fine for friends and family to fake the interactions – though the student should discuss this in the evaluation.

Database Exam

I’m giving up completely with unit numbers now. They do matter in terms of admin but the link to the spec is above.

The database exam is something we’ve been doing for years with GCE Applied ICT. As before, some of the long-time BTEC folks were concerned about the examined nature of this unit, but it’s not something I’m going to lose sleep over.

The assessment is a 10 hour exam, completed as you choose over a 1 week window. It needs to be arranged as a proper exam, with JCQ rules on invigilation, etc. It is not controlled assessment. The questions will be consistent on each paper – here is a scenario and a flat data file, normalise and great an ERD, write your data dictionaries, plan your forms and reports, create your tables, import your data, create specific queries, evaluate. Only the scenario will change, though there won’t be any pre-release.

Students are expected to use something like Access (the Applied ICT said you MUST use Access – this one at least looks manageable in OpenOffice Base or potentially other relational database management software). They can use wizards, etc. and with good preparation and practice I suspect they will do just fine.

Those who haven’t been teaching the old Applied ICT course will find a treasure trove of past papers for the 6957 unit from that course.

Modelling and Web Design

We didn’t really look at these, though they will function in a similar way to the Social Media unit. Teach them some stuff and then give them two assignments – one to show understanding and one to plan, create and evaluate.


I think I was the only person at my meeting who wasn’t a long-standing BTEC teacher, so the admin side of things was new to me. I’ve heard many horror stories but it doesn’t seem so bad once you get the procedures in place.

You need a plan. You should plan to do some teaching, then release an assignment. The students should have a fixed deadline for this and once it comes in you should have your own deadline for marking it, and then getting an Internal Verifier (IV) to moderate it. Once internally verified you can give the marks out and, if there is a good reason, you can grant a resubmission to some students (though this shouldn’t be the norm – there should be a compelling reason). A bit like CA at Level 2, you can give general advice on what is needed but not specific ‘do this, add that’ kinds of comments. The resubmission then need to be back within 10 or 15 days (there was some discussion over whether this is calendar days, week days, days with a timetabled lesson and whether the clock is ticking over half terms, etc.).

A sample will always be called for the Social Media unit, though this might typically be 3 or 4 students per cohort, even for fairly large cohorts. The optional units may or may not be sampled depending on the luck of the draw, but 3 samples out of 30 is a lot less than we send off now so I’m not worried about that.

And I think that’s about it!

No doubt I’ve missed something off, but it’s worth reading the specification and having a good look at the sample assessment material (SAM). Pearson are also producing a load of delivery guides and other resources to help teachers.

My plan is to have 2 teachers, with a 60/40 split. The bigger portion will be coursework with any time remaining afterwards given over towards exam prep (especially in Y13 where it’s a 120 GLH exam and a 60 GLH coursework unit). I’ve not picked an optional unit yet.

A generation of amoral hackers?

Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 17.05.22
The Mirror

I must admit, I chuckled when I saw the article by The Mirror, warning that a generation of “amoral and disruptive youngsters who use their skills to kick against society …with many using the skills they picked up in lessons”.

Anyone who has been in the classroom with a bunch of mixed-ability Y9 students, trying to encourage them to write/adapt a  program to switch on LEDs or play rock-paper-scissors, knows that classrooms aren’t exactly a hotbed of sedition.

However, I find myself in a genuine ethical dilemma when it comes to GCSE Computer Science.

Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 17.24.26

The new OCR J276 specification includes specific references to online security. As expected you get some stuff on legislation (including data protection & computer misuse), references to anti-malware, firewalls, user access levels and passwords. You now also get mention of encryption, penetration testing and network forensics.

Encryption – no problem. It’s a little vague  but there are no specific mentions of algorithms (as you get at AS level) so I dare say we’ll look at the Caeser Cipher, probably Pigpen and a couple of others – moving up to the purpose of online encryption.

The interesting bit is the addition of penetration testing and network forensics. My experience in this area is pretty limited (I once cracked a neighbour’s WEP key just to see if I could, but that’s about it). Forensics; I suppose I could look at the logs on one of our servers or have a look at ownership of files in Linux but other than that I’m a bit stumped.

The one I’m pondering, though, is penetration testing (thankfully shortened to pen testing in common parlance – I can’t imagine the sniggering this is going to induce). The aim is to try and find vulnerabilities in a computer system. And the best way to teach about it (in general) is by doing it. So, I’ve been looking into methods and software to set this up in a classroom.

I could install Kali Linux on a Raspberry Pi and use it with a home-made LAN that is totally separate from the main network, or I could use the awesomely named MyLittlePwny (based on the PwnPi OS). With a little LAN built up of various Windows boxes, a spare (outdated) Mac and some Pis I suppose I could get the students to explore and experiment. But then I suddenly find myself drawn back to that article in the Mirror.

This year I’ve already had to intervene with some Y10 Computer Science students, one of whom thought it would be funny to copy a batch file that would delete/rename work in the user’s home directory and a couple of others who thought it would be fun to distribute it around the class. Do I really want to give those students links and hands-on experience with a more powerful arsenal?

Of course any lessons on these topics would need to be bookended (and interlaced) with discussions of morality, legislation and the difference between white-hat, grey-hat and black-hat hackers.

Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 19.13.52.png
Top Secret

Another option is to make use of free online games (e.g. Hacker Experience or Slave Hack), maybe even looking at some paid-for desktop/mobile alternatives (e.g. the intriguing looking Top Secret, the assembly language simulation TIS-100, the retro hacking classic Uplink, its nephew Hacknet or the bizarre but engrossing looking Else Heart.Break()).

I’m not really sure what my conclusion is yet. I think that lessons in pen testing and identifying vulnerabilities in order to fix them are a good thing in principle. In practice, I’m not sure how akin it is to teaching self defence, only to find one of your students used their new skills to go and mug someone.


The Poke

Today I am not leaving teaching.

I’ve seen a lot of blog posts lately; from the secret teacher, primary teachers, secondary teachers, senior leaders and more. I even wrote one myself 4 years ago (and it has been by far my most read post). The stories are all heartfelt, familiar and somewhat painful. Education under the Tories has gone to hell in a handbasket, the levels of accountability have become oppressive, the pressure to hit targets can feel suffocating and autonomy feels like it has all but left the building.

But I am not leaving teaching.

Those who have left talk of having an actual work-life balance, better physical and emotional health and in conversation I’ve found not a single ex-teacher who tells me they feel they have to work as hard now as they used to do just to stand still.

And yet this is not a post about leaving teaching.

I have good days and bad days, but today I had some great fun with my Y10 class that involved a bit of winding them up, a bit of having a laugh and, by heck, it involved them producing a big chunk of work.

I had a difficult chat with a pupil – the details of which I can’t and won’t go into this morning. And this afternoon I got a subtle smile from said student as I passed by their classroom on my way to firefight 3 other issues.

My Y12s worked for almost an hour in near silence, producing work demonstrating that the lessons I spent last week trying to re-teach them about flow charts and IFDs had actually made a difference.

I could go on (and perhaps I should). The point is that even on those days where I feel totally ineffectual, fail to solve the problem I’m having with their progress and go home with a knotted ball of stress in my stomach and in my legs, there are still those moments where I’m making a difference.

Teaching is an awesome job, and it’s a privilege to have those moments. Moments that I wouldn’t have if I wasn’t in education.

There is a cost, of course. I’m increasingly having to find ways to step back, accept my limitations (they can’t all make 5 levels of progress!) and switch off. Last weekend I didn’t mark a single piece of work. I did, however, take on a couple of extra dog walks, clear out a nest of super mutants, caught up with a couple of films and just generally tried to be a human rather than a teacher for a change.

So I’m trying to be positive. To rationalise the problems I find challenging, to decompose the difficulties and to be a supportive rather than whinging voice around my colleagues. With mixed success, of course, but then this is a career that can easily take the best of you and spit you out if you’re not careful.

And I’m staying a teacher for the foreseeable future.

Flash (as in Gordon, not Marvel?)

Flash Mob – JD Hancock

Actually I mean the software. Or the plugin. Which is a big part of the problem.

“Flash Banner Ads Banished By Google”, heralds the BBC. And bang goes another nail into the lid of the coffin of a software tool I have spent years getting to grips with. This morning I saw some comments, not for the first time, suggesting that schools, and teachers, should not be “teaching Flash”.

Well, I agree, and I disagree. Teachers shouldn’t ‘teach’ specific software packages – I don’t ‘teach’ Photoshop, or Fireworks, or IDLE, or Sketchup. I hopefully teach image editing techniques, programming, problem solving and 3D modelling. It might seem a trivial difference in phrasing, but the intention it conveys and the techniques used in the classroom are very different.

As for consigning my very expensive Flash licence to the dustbin, I’m not quite so sure.

There are a couple of issues here besides pedagogical nomenclature, and while my first instinct was to defend the software with which I have a long love/hate relationship, it bears some pause for thought.

  1. Are we talking Flash the program, or Flash the plugin? The program allows me to create multimedia products – whether I choose to focus on stop frame animation, tweening, embedding of other media types or scripting. Once finished then the natural output format is a SWF file, for which you need a Flash plugin.The Flash plugin has been plagued with security holes and its demise has been clear to see for years. The newer HTML5 standard means that you no longer need to play Flash video, and Flash banner animations (the subject of today’s BBC news story) is certainly well on the way out.

    However, even in my lowly CS3 incarnation of Flash the program (released in 2007 and superseded by several newer versions) I can export projects as a Flash Movie (SWF), Quicktime video (MOV) or animated GIF (along with a host of other formats, though I find those less useful). So the animations that my Y12 students made this half term can be embedded into a website as GIFs, providing all the functionality with none of the security holes or controversy. I could create the same animation in Fireworks, but find the interface more clumsy (and that’s before we get onto the Fireworks vs Photoshop discussion on obsolescence).

  2. The Flash plugin is not dead yet! OK, it’s not a forward thinking technology. Neither is VGA and look how much fun in schools has been spoiled by having to fudge a HDMI to VGA adapter, with Raspberry Pis. There are pros and cons in looking forward and also in using what works NOW. Yes, we want to prepare students for the future, but training them in HTML5 versus teaching them principles using current tools that are mature and stable is not a simple problem to get around.

    In the meantime the Flash plugin still works, and will for some years to come. So I can still teach about frame by frame versus tweening, still Rotoscope (thanks to David Philips for showing me that one!), still help students create complex interactive products that use a range of multimedia and interactive techniques and can still get them all to work in a web browser.

  3. The alternatives aren’t (IMO) great just yet. I have some software that is great for frame by frame animation (I Can Animate, Pivot, Fireworks). There is very little out there that does tweening well (I’ve played with Swish in the past, but haven’t seen much else). There are various languages out there for scripting (VB, VBA, Javascript, Python) but none that I’ve come across that will let me combine the animation and the scripting together (and I don’t just mean a script that will play an animation, or not, but one that I can embed into the animation). Ultimately, HTML5 may well allow me to do all this, but there is no package, or set of packages, that will let me achieve what I want THAT I HAVE FOUND (I do keep looking, but tell me if you know of one!).

We do have an obligation to keep a little up to date with what we are teaching, but the skills and techniques transcend (or underpin – depending on your visualisation of choice) the tools we choose.

I find it fascinating that this comes in the same week as teachers are celebrating the release of the Usborne programming books from the 80s, surely a much more significant example of outdated software and hardware (though certainly still valuable despite that).

Is Flash the program as irrelevant to students as Flash Gordon? Or, like the Marvel version, is there still a good use for the franchise? Flash is undoubtedly on the way out, and I fully expect to be teaching the same techniques and principles using different software tools in the future. Until I can find a mature and stable product that does what I need, though, I’ll be using Flash for a little while to come.

GCSE Computer Science specification roundup

Finally TPTB (Ofqual) have accredited the OCR GCSE specification for computer science. While this was inevitable, I didn’t want to review the specifications until they were all in.

So, here are my thoughts:

WJEC / Eduqas


I went to look at this first because I’m still intrigued by the online exam. Assessing programming skills in a timed environment is quite realistic and avoid the dirge of 20 hours of the kids staring at a screen and my having little opportunity to support them. The CA can become an exercise in grinding (akin to repeatedly carrying out a boring task to level up in a role playing game) and so I’ve always thought there should be something like the AQA A Level Comp 1 exam at GCSE, and WJEC are the only board to offer it.


It has to be Java and it has to be Greenfoot. The practical exam cannot be carried out in any other language or environment. Now I like Java, and I love Greenfoot. But I’m not sure it’s the right starting point for GCSE. There’s a lot of boilerplate and a lot of syntax (semi colons, curly braces, etc.) which VB, SmallBASIC, etc. and Python avoid. It also means you have to introduce object orientation (explicitly stated in the spec) – which is a big leap for a new programmer IMO.

More worryingly, the exam is in addition to, rather than instead of, the NEA. So you still get the 20 hour dirge on top.

The theory content explicitly states that students need to be able to use HTML. That, in itself, is not necessarily a bad idea, but it’s an extra language and set of syntax rules to learn on top of everything else.


At this point I’m out. A glance through the theory content looks broadly similar, but I want the practical exam to be instead of NEA, not in addition, and I don’t want to be forced into one environment – at least not if it’s an environment I’m not entirely comfortable with choosing.

Edexcel / Pearson


The specification is in line with the other offerings. Two written papers, one 20 hour NEA. The content is similar across all boards and is a notable step up from the previous incarnation (e.g. binary representation now needs to include sign & magnitude and twos compliment representation for negative integers). Reading the sample papers – this new course is going to be hard! But this is true for all boards.


The controlled assessment must be carried out without access to the Internet or a school intranet. So no extra help allowed, even if vetted internally. This is the most strict set of rules I’ve seen for this one. You can put copies of appropriate digital documents in home directories so I’m chilled out a little on my 4th reading of the spec.

You are also restricted to one board-set NEA task.

The mark scheme for the NEA gives 24 marks (40%) for implementation and 36 marks for analysis, design, testing, refining and evaluation. Systems lifecycle and consideration for data structures and for testing are important. But that sounds like a lot of emphasis on writing about programming with less than half about the actual programming.

The controlled assessment sample provided was quite vague (again, a common theme). This allows for creativity at the top end but very little support or scaffolding for those who might struggle.


Theory and exam-wise, it looks much of a muchness. The NEA also looks broadly in line (which is part of the point of the reboot), but the controls are extremely strict. I did find the exam papers looked fairly accessible.



AQA – you know where you are when reading the specification. It’s not the single most important aspect but I find the format of the document very easy to follow.

It’s also the exam board we are using at A Level, so there ought to be some good commonality between the two levels of specification. I always thought that the OCR GCSE legacy spec suited the AQA AS legacy spec extremely well.

Again, familiar content. This time no negative binary numbers, but you do have things like Huffman trees, which is something I will need to investigate myself before I’m ready to teach.

Internet access is allowed (implicitly) for the NEA. The only specific reference I could find was in section 5.2 (avoiding malpractice), which says that students must not copy directly from “the internet or other sources without acknowledgement”.

I’m not sure if this is a pro or a con – my current Y11s have had a really difficult time trying to avoid spoilers, or judge what is a spoiler, on their recent controlled assessment tasks. It’s certainly more open than the Edexcel approach, however.

The sample NEA task looked much more scaffolded than the Edexcel task which is a key issue for those students who need a bit more support and guidance.


Only 30 of the 80 NEA marks are for programming, the rest for analysis, design, testing, refinement and evaluation. That’s 37.5%, and I thought Edexcel’s 40% was low!

AQA’s interpretation of pseudocode looks more scary than Edexcel’s. Where Edexcel has lots of text-based output statements, AQA’s sample exam questions look like a sea of syntax that could well put students off.


Honestly… I think it’s close between Edexcel and AQA. I much prefer the AQA sample NEA task, but prefer the Edexcel exam papers. The theory content is similar, with some subtle differences but nothing that couldn’t be overcome with good planning from the outset.



It’s OCR. It’s Rob, Vinay and Ceredig – the team I’ve known off and on since 2010 (OK, it was George and Sean that I knew initially, but still…). It’s the team with a very supportive Facebook group that I’ve made extensive use of, and helped to take part in.

Edit to add: The support is a huge issue. Whether it is exam board support (the coursework consultancy is a great idea) or community support – having other centres nearby with the same questions and the opportunity to moderate both NEA and internal assessments is invaluable.

The new course is an iteration of the old one. I’m very familiar with the old one and have largely enjoyed it. The content has been ramped up here, as with elsewhere. Still no negative numbers here (unlike Edexcel), and not much that I’ve seen here and not elsewhere.

The NEA allows you a choice of 3 tasks each year, the only course to have this. So the students can choose the task that suits them best, or you can choose for them (more likely). The NEA also allows intranet access. This is implicit rather than explicit but I’m sure I’ve heard from Rob or Ceredig that this would be acceptable (within reason, of course). No Internet, but see above for comments on the rampant cheating that this might help to alleviate.

The NEA mark scheme award 20 / 40 (50%) of the marks for programming, and the rest for analysis, design, testing, refinement and evaluation. The highest ratio of doing to writing about doing that I’ve seen yet.

The NEA tasks are broken down in a similar way to the AQA offering, providing a little more clarity than the Edexcel vagueness but still with freedom to explore at the top end.


Edited: It’s OCR. Which might lull you (or me) into a false sense of doing what we have previously. For old hands like me who’ve been teaching the OCR spec since 2010 it is possible I will slip into teaching the same content – which would be a very bad thing as there is a definite shift.

OCR’s is the only spec that explicitly references SQL. I didn’t see anything in the sample exam papers but it’s definitely there in the specification. I don’t mind SQL, but given the choice of enforcing that students learn another set of syntax versus not doing so, I’m tempted to leave that until KS5.

The NEA mark scheme only offers 12 / 40 marks (30%) of the marks for programming. The lowest ratio of doing to writing about doing that I’ve seen.

Yes, that’s a contradiction to what I said above. There are 8 extra marks for ‘development’. Current OCR centres will be familiar with this section. It is kind of about doing and kind of about writing. And I didn’t see this quite as explicitly in the other specs. Going back it is there in the AQA spec (approx. half of the programming marks) – although there it is more about the summative description of what you have created rather than a narrative of how it was created. The Edexcel spec also focuses on the completed product with only a reference to screenshots demonstrating debugging skills.

In my experience the documenting of the development process is one of the most frustrating elements for the students. They want to be on and doing, not stopping to write it up as they go. And this leads to frustration and also to lost marks when actually they are very good programmers and problem solvers.

The chunked / scaffolded NEA tasks are not quite as chunked as the AQA sample assessment task I don’t think, though still clearer than Edexcel.


NEA (only 20% of outcome but a significant investment of time and enthusiasm) offers the most freedom and a fair amount of support as well as a familiar structure for the writeup.

The exam structure and presentation is largely familiar which is reassuring, but I would need to keep making sure I’m delivering the right content for the new spec and not the old one.


Overall Decision?

This is harder than I thought it would be.

I like the OCR team. I’m familiar with the OCR way of doing things and I like having the flexibility of choosing from 3 tasks each year. I like bullet-pointed, chunked programming tasks. I don’t need the Internet.


OCR still has the development section of NEA, which ought to be fine but is a drag. With AQA I can reduce the impact of that, keep my bullet points and still have freedom over how much the students can access online resources. Edexcel have made the NEA task description too vague and locked the rules down very tightly.

Exam wise I think I prefer Edexcel. Negative numbers aren’t so tricky and that was the only difference in theory I could find on a quick scan. The exam papers look relatively friendly and the pseudocode wasn’t as off-putting as AQA.

For me, it’s down to Edexcel vs OCR. With OCR I get more support and feel more comfortable with what is expected. With Edexcel I think there is the potential for a more prosperous pair of exams, though I do worry about the NEA.


Further thoughts

This new spec is going to be hard. Noticeably harder than the current spec. 2d arrays, subroutines (functions, procedures and libraries), specific network protocols to learn and more focus on writing accurate algorithms. I’m glad the NEA has dropped a lot, and this means we’ll have more time for exploration and learning instead of assessing and assessing, but next year is going to be a real challenge.