How to make your child succeed at GCSE

3 June 2009
The Western Daily Press

The truth about exams

So just what is the key to success at GCSE? As a teacher in various state schools for the past two decades, I still chew over the issue virtually every day! Just recently, I was talking late into the night at a Year 11 Parents’ evening. The parents of these sixteen-year-olds were desperate to know how their children could improve their English scores — the subject I teach at mixed comprehensive in the outskirts of London. In particular, one parent, Mrs Smith, was pulling her hair out because her sixteen-year-old son, Josh, is clearly a clever boy but is absolutely bombing in his exams, scoring the lowest grades. In his Key Stage 3 English test, he only managed a Level 3 and in his mock English GCSE he got an ‘F’ grade. I replied that I thought he had a ‘special educational need’ (SEN); I felt he had ‘dysgraphia’ — the inability to express himself while writing by hand. She was initially very reluctant to have him assessed for this, worrying that being labelled as SEN would make things worse for him, but when I explained how such an assessment could help him, she agreed to have him tested. A specialist from the Local Authority assessed him as having mild dyspraxia (hand-eye issues) and ‘dsygraphia’. The assessment meant Josh was given a clear plan of action for improvement and received a laptop to use in his lessons and exams. Since then, his grades in class have leapt from F and G grades to D and C grades; the transformation is remarkable. He is now on course to achieve C grades in most of his GCSEs.

What was incredible is that Josh’s ‘learning difficulties’ were not picked up much sooner. Really by the time he was eight, it should have been clear to his teachers that he had some difficulties with his handwriting which were severely hampering his progress. Instead he had been labelled as ‘slow’ and ‘unintelligent’, and, as a result, frustrated by his lack of progress, he had become a big behavioural problem; ripping up his books, getting into fights and backchatting his teachers. No one had thought to give him a thorough assessment for SEN. I have come across children who have had had far milder learning difficulties who have been diagnosed SEN; but, by and large, these have been the children of pushy parents anxious to get the maximum resources for their child. These were parents who were ‘keyed in’ to the system, who knew that to have your child labelled as ‘SEN’ is actually not harmful but extremely useful because it means targeted help.

However, parents like Josh’s mum — from more deprived backgrounds — don’t know how to support their children fully. She hadn’t been pushy at his primary school and had not demanded that they gave Josh a clear plan of action for improvement. Instead, he had drifted from year to year feeling more and more demoralised.

Josh’s case is very important because it illustrates two vital factors in the success of a child at school; the importance of early assessment and parental input. Josh is one of the lucky ones; he is naturally bright and so with a laptop he is able to pass most exams. However, many children who come from deprived backgrounds enter primary school far more inarticulate than Josh; at five years old they can barely speak more than a few sentences. Studies have shown that children whose parents are living on benefits are not exposed to the language that the children of affluent parents are. A fascinating study in the US a few years ago showed that on average, when in the company of their parent, a ‘middle class’ child listens and responds to a thousand more words per hour than a child living with a single parent on welfare; by the age of three it was estimated that a middle class child would have been exposed to 35 million words, while a child on welfare had only listened to 10 million.

Linguistic impoverishment plays a huge factor in the child’s attainment at school. Many schools are simply not equipped to cope with children who cannot communicate coherently; the Key Stage tests at seven do not adequately diagnose what is wrong with them and the curriculum is not designed to give these children the intensive language training they need. However, studies in the US and the UK show when children are given intensive ‘communication’ catch-up programmes very early on in their school career — in reception and Year 1 — the impact has been huge. They have gone on to achieve well as teenagers.

Josh’s problem was not severe because he was articulate; so when he was given the tools to express himself in writing, he was able to shine. However, I have taught many pupils who have had multiple special needs: dyslexia (difficulties with reading and spelling), dyspraxia (perceptual difficulties with hand-eye co-ordination) and various communication disorders. Many of them had not been diagnosed as SEN or, if they were, the programme of action they were on did not help them. What most of them needed was intensive communication training in their primary schools. Since that had not happened, the children had entered the secondary school where I taught unable to cope with the curriculum; unable to discuss things in a sustained fashion or understand what was going on. With little or no support at home and teachers’ hands tied by a restrictive National Curriculum which doesn’t allow enough time to give extra ‘communication’ lessons, they all failed to gain the five A*-C grades at GCSE that the government expects all pupils to achieve.

Ultimately, this mess isn’t teachers’ or parents’ fault; it is actually this incompetent government’s. Study after study has shown there needs to be a radical overhaul of our assessment regime and our curriculum. The system for assessing pupils, which the Labour party has presided over, is laughably out of date; the Key Stage tests do not identify the ‘learning difficulties’ that many pupils have. Instead, the testing regime obliges teachers to ram a boring curriculum down pupils’ throats — which they hate.

Is it any wonder that fewer than half the pupils in the South West of England attain 5 good GCSEs? Instead of threatening to close schools with poor results and lock up parents of truanting pupils, the government needs to help teachers identify under-achievers at much earlier age and give teachers the freedom and time to help them properly.


  1. I am a mother with a 13 year old and struggling to help my daughter with English, Maths and Science. I have just learn’t that the schools English results have been disappointing. So to is my daughters level of English.
    Subjects she should be doing well in such as English, Science and Maths are deteriorating. Periodically, I cry out for homework and when given could be completed in 10mins and basic.
    I have spoken to teachers and frankly they think she’ll be fine. I have specifically asked how I can help and was given 2 English key stage 3 books. A phone call and list of areas to cover and a website for her GCSE Yr 9 science exam and No Maths. Yes, I will ask again.
    How can I help her? as I am not equipped to deal with these three key subjects.
    Presently, she is in the top Science group, second Maths group and third English group out of 5 or 6 groups.
    The above groups only sound good, it is not as she is SERIOUSLY under performing, when she should be positively progressing
    Please help
    I need a plan of action.

    from Janet
  2. Thanks for this Janet.

    A few things to double-check on:

    1. Have you spoken to your daughter’s teachers and found out exactly what’s going on?
    2. Keep positive and draw up a Individual Action Plan with your daughter and the teachers, with daughter there in front of the teachers. Set some reasonable deadlines.
    3. Avoid nagging and catastrophizing at home. Do some “big picture” stuff such as cooking with your daughter, going for walks, enjoying life! This may not have a short-term effect, but it will make a BIG difference in the long run.

    Stay in touch.

    from francisgilbert
  3. Hi, I have a thirteen yr old boy who has ADHD and Aspergers syndrome. We have just had his options interview with his school head of yr. All the way through school he has had an Idividual education plan but last yr was taken off it. My son has always struggled with maths and English and is in bottom groups. My problem is I feel he is definitely not mentally ready for GCSE work and exams. He most definitely needs some sort of extra help but he hates the idea of having to do more than he is required to do. It is causing lots of frustration already. He has the mental age of about a 9 yr old. Could you tell me where to turn to, to help him the best way possible.

    Thank you

    from Rita Bernard
  4. I am a mother of a fifteen year old girl which is taking her IGCSEs this year, right now she has all on C and above except for Biology which is in a D. My daughter works very very hard however she comes in a state of complete panic when she hears the word exam or IGCSE what can i do? How can i help her?

    Kind Regards

    from Lily Smith
  5. You really need to speak to her teachers about this and take it up with the person with overall supervision for her, such as her personal tutor/form tutor.

    from francisgilbert
  6. Hi I have a 13 year old boy whose writing is almost illegible at times.At KS2 sats he was able to use a laptop and had extra time and therefore got reasonable results. He is doing ok at school except when required to write for any length of time- speed of writing, basic structure/grammar and legibility are issues. He has recently had pain in his feet and ankles and a Podiatrist mentioned he has hypermobile joints and described him as “a bag of bones” I know this is a contributing factor to to his fine motor skills problems but am not sure what to do next. I have approached the school and his subject teachers all agree that he is articulate but that his written work does not reflect his understanding. Have you any suggestions for how to proceed? It is the schools policy to start/ take some GCSE’s early and he is panicking about his inability to write enough.
    Can you help?
    Best wishes
    Mandy Phipps

    from Mandy Phipps
  7. I have a 13 year old daughter who has complex neuro delayed development and has attended mainstream school with a statement of SEN, however she has always struggled and it got to a point last year where her self esteem was at rock bottom and I called for a CAF to try and get the staff at her school to differentiate her work, this finally worked when her Paediatrician stood up and said at her roview ‘Differentiation it’s not happening!’

    School have now placed her on an Applied Learning Course as she is unable to take the normal GCSE route, however she has to undertake Maths, English, Science GCSE.

    For the last fortnight she has been stressed because she undertook a Controlled Assessment in English on Mice & Men, despite watching and discussing DVD’s, reading the book, going over it on Bitesize before she took this assessment she has rung me up in tears today because she has done so badly.

    I really don’t know what to do as it seems to me that we are torturing her mentally, she was given no extra time, a reader or anything and I am fed up with constantly being labelled the problem parent. Please can you advise me what to do with this negative situation.

    from Fiona Bryettt
  8. I’m sorry to hear this. She certainly should be entitled to extra time according to current regulations. What does the SENCO at the school say? It’s difficult to comment because I don’t know the school.

    from francisgilbert
  9. Hi I am the mother of a bright 16 year old who is completing his GCSE’s this year. I am very worried after receiving his report last night. Each comment is the same stating that he is not concentrating in class, easily distracted and not achieving his full potential. He has already taken a few GCSE’s achieving C grades which he references as evidence that he is doing well. He had hoped to study art at A level however after being predicted an A grade he is now tracking at a G grade. I am visiting the school to discuss his subjects in more detail. I have discussed with him but he doesn’t seem to understand the urgency or importance of trying hard and achieving the best grades possible. He says he is gutted about his report. Any assistance or tips gratefully received.

    from Lynne Austin
  10. I am very concerned about my 15 year old son whom has just started his GCSE today…. He was estimated to gain (c) for most of them , but his mocks so far only gaining a d/ f he has been stuggling so much this year and had quite a lot of time of school due to two deaths in the family (cousins) both young and died of rhe same (cancer) this i know has affected my son and he seems to have give up on everything. His teachers said he dosnt concentrate in class ….. He has always struggling even in primary school . He finds it very hard to concentrate and writing is a big issue he said he is ok answering questions but finds when he has to put pen to paper he struggles. I have seen him struggle like this for time now and have asked for him tp be assesed for dyslexcia and other things associated to this but nobody listens… I know my son is giving up he dosnt even revise any more i feel his school has let him down nobody listens to him or myself i am a single morher and i find it very hard on my own i had my son late in life . I know he is a very clever boy but im exausted to what i can do to get help any advice would be very welcome From johanna Mckenna

    from Johanna mckenna
  11. You need to speak to the Head of Year or relevant pastoral manager at the school about this regarding the pastoral issues, and also have him assessed by the Special Needs Co-ordinator (SENCO) in the school for Special Needs. You are entitled to an assessment; ask for an Educational Psychologist to assess him. He could be due extra time in the exams and/or a laptop. Good luck!

    from francisgilbert
  12. Hi I’m hoping you can help. My 15 year old son just had his mock results back. He scored an F in maths and English and a U in science. He has met and on occasion beaten his targets throughout the school year. His problem is retaining information.
    He can do the work whilst he is being taught it but when it comes to exams and revision he falls apart.
    He has panic attacks before exams and his mind goes blank.
    He is heartbroken today as he had been told he cannot do the course he wanted at college (plumbing) because he didn’t score high enough on the assessment ( he needed 60% but only scored 24%),
    The questions on the assessment were all math and science.
    The school don’t want to help despite having dozens of meetings. All they say is he must try harder. He is doing everything he can. How can I help him retain the info needed to get a good grade?

    from Rebecca
  13. These tips here are very useful to help with memorisation key facts and ideas for exams:

    This article is useful too:

    Good luck!

    from francisgilbert
  14. My daughter was diagnosed at 10 with dysgraphia She has had three schools..Searching for the right school has been a failure and i feel i have let her down so badly

    She is now going into GCSE revision and has no idea how to get started
    The worst of it is that we have paid for her education .
    She is like a rabbit in the headlights
    she is untidy (you can’t imagine how bad this is)
    destructive(breaking pens , cutting things )
    Does no social activities

    I have to say a beautiful young lady
    such a lost soul made to feel different because her educational needs have not been met or understood
    there is no continuation between a SEN report and actions been put into place at school
    A very fragmented system


    from Linda Sinton
  15. Oh dear, this sounds like a bad situation. What does the SENCO say? Has she been properly assessed? What do you mean paid for her education, is she at a private school? If so, private schools are not bound the SEN legislation in place but maintained schools are.

    from francisgilbert

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