Do your pupils struggle to reap the benefits of GCSEs? Would your school benefit from courses which reward your students’ personal effectiveness and social skills? Bedminster Down School in Bristol feels that it did

Marius Frank, Headteacher, Bedminster Down School, Bristol

School context

Bedminster Down is an 11–16 co-ed community school with more than 1,000 students on roll, serving predominantly white working-class areas on the south-west side of Bristol. Although broadly average in terms of free school meals, three out of four wards in the catchment area fall in the bottom 1% in the country in terms of education deprivation. The historical patterns of staying in education post-16 and post-18 are also among the lowest nationally. The social impact on the rising generations is significant. Feeder schools struggle to make progress at national rates, from a low baseline. On entry, the percentage of students arriving with Level 4 in English and maths is commonly 10% below the national average. Poor literacy is a major barrier. For example, out of 185 students in the 2007 exam cohort, 120 entered the school with a reading age that was two or more years behind their chronological age. Fischer Family Trust (FFT) analysis of the year group reported just two able girls. Across the South Bristol communities, one of the most significant underachieving groups is middle-ability girls. Until recently, headline GCSE five or more A*–C grade results have oscillated in the low to mid 20%s, with the percentage for five or more A*–C grades including English and maths significantly lower even than this. However, despite these challenges, the school has never been in special measures, given notice to improve, deemed to be failing or have significant weaknesses. ‘Raising expectations – valuing achievement’ has been the strapline that has focused the energy of generations of teachers at the school, and is as relevant today as it was more than a decade ago. Over the past four years, Bedminster Down has won back the confidence of the community it serves, and is now oversubscribed.

Bedminster Down School responded well to the national strategies and imperatives aimed at raising standards – from assessment for learning (AfL) and behaviours for learning (B4L) to the range of extended practice encouraged through the Excellence in Cities programmes – but headline GCSE results were stubbornly stuck in the mid-20s. It was also fair to say that teachers were working far harder than the students! We needed a spark to ignite our broadly GCSE-based curriculum.

We had rejected the dash for GNVQs simply to raise standards, feeling that our pupils would benefit more from as broad and as balanced an education as we could possibly provide (until the majority left formal education at 16 to begin work). However, this left us exposed, near the foot of the attainment league tables, with Her Majesty’s Inspectorate (HMI) as frequent visitors. We needed to raise standards and achievement quickly.

Up until that point, we had used the Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network (ASDAN) in a conventional way within the school curriculum. Some of the weakest learners followed the Bronze and Silver programmes as part of a ‘pre-vocational’ option. We were pleased with the engaging nature of the ASDAN course, and the challenge-based impact of a ‘can-do’ curriculum. But, although these awards have built self-esteem, grown self-worth and self-confidence, and helped the students to develop an invaluable skillset for the world of work, they did not show up as points on the league-table scoreboard.

Why use CoPE?

Do we value what we measure, or do we measure what we value?

This phrase, coined by Professor Bart McGettrick of the School of Education at Glasgow University, summed up our ethical dilemma. GCSEs appeared to ‘fail’ well over half our pupils, but counted for something. The ASDAN Awards had the potential to impact on the develop­ment of a young person’s life skills in a deep and direct way, but ‘counted’ for nothing. That was until the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) approved the ASDAN Certificate of Personal Effectiveness (CoPE) qualification (the first pilot studies for which were completed in 2005). We seized the opp­or­tunity to take up this new qualification.

Introducing CoPE
The ASDAN CoPE qualification is not easy to introduce. It cannot be taken off the shelf, deployed across the whole school, then left for two years to impact on outcomes.

Firstly, the standards associated with each of the six skill domains have to be understood and assimilated thoroughly by teachers, students and any other adult involved in delivery, monitoring or support. The six skill areas are:

  • research
  • oral presentation
  • discussion
  • working with others
  • problem-solving
  • improving your own learning and performance.

Attempting to absorb, and immediately deliver, all six at once can be an extreme challenge in itself.
Then there is the mandatory paperwork, the plan-do-review trinity at the heart of good ASDAN practice. Some complain about the amount of paperwork associated with the qualification, but the way to approach it was to view the mandatory sheets as a kind of ‘thinking scaffolding’ that could be used to help guide students through high-quality planning, thinking and reflection.

But CoPE is an amazingly flexible qualification: for example, you could use it as a standalone option, to accredit personal, social and health education (PSHE), or make it a part of your vocational programme. We decided to use the qualification in two ways.

  • Firstly, it was introduced as part of an accelerated progress initiative, targeted at a group of borderline C grade students in Year 11. A total of 45 pupils were selected:
  • the ‘shoulds’ – students targeted for achieving five or more A*-C grades but, who for a variety of mainly social and attitudinal problems, were not on track
  • the ‘coulds’ – genuine borderline students targeted to achieve the bare five C grades, but on a bad day might miss them
  • the ‘maybes’ – a group of students sometimes overlooked, and who may even be overperforming, but only capable of four C grades at best, who would benefit from the opportunity of scoring an additional C+ grade.

We created capacity in the curriculum by withdrawing the identified students from French GCSE at Christmas in Year 11, and forming two CoPE teaching groups from then until exam leave in May. It was a pragmatic decision, based on forecast GCSE grades, timetabling capacity and costs (it would have been better to have withdrawn students in smaller groups from a wider range of options, but this would have been prohibitively expensive). One member of staff coordinated the programme, but delivery was left to supply and cover teachers known to the students and the school.

Through workforce remodelling, we appointed a personal development curriculum (PDC) coordinator at head of faculty level – which was instead of a PSHE manager post, used by many schools. Their core duties were similar to that of a head of year in terms of team leadership and management – as well as mapping topics and areas of interest to cover the CoPE framework, and also to meet statutory responsibilities in sex, drugs, citizenship,
RE and ICT delivery.

Achieving credits for the accelerated progress initiative
At first glance, delivering 120 guided learning hours in six months seemed an impossible task. But when we realised that, as part of the ASDAN accreditation framework, learning experiences that otherwise would be missed actually ‘counted’, we soon saw how this would be achievable.

An outstanding example of this is work experience. We are proud of our record for guiding every student in Year 10 on to a work placement. A record of the prepara­tion, activities and reflections was kept in a logbook prepared by our local Con­nexions service. ASDAN validated a completed logbook (with clear inherent plan-do-review structured activity associated with 25 hours of work-related learning) as three out of 12 credits straight into the CoPE qualification! The students responded to this very positively, and it acted as a catalyst for many of them to engage with the qualification, even at such a late stage in Year 11.

We then put in place a strategy that, on reflection, had the single-most significant impact on the future performance of the school: we looked to GCSE coursework as a means of securing evidence for key skill development and accreditation within the CoPE qualification.

Due to the nature of our catchment area, much of the coursework elements tended to be carried out under controlled condi­tions in the classroom. The six identifiable skillsets in CoPE that we needed to evid­ence and assess were mapped across the faculties by the leadership team.

A good example of this was French. Even though the students had been withdrawn from French GCSE, they had completed their coursework under ‘teacher-guided’ condi­tions (the distinction between teacher-guided and teacher-led is import­ant, as it frames whether a student is working at Level 2 or Level 1). This assignment was an extended piece of writing about ‘How fit and healthy I am’, but researched and written in French. This was used as the source material for students to give an oral presentation (mainly in French) to Level 2 standards, for inclusion into the CoPE portfolio of evid­ence. The evidence included completion of mandatory plan-do-review recording sheets (by student and witnessing tutor), the coursework, cue cards prepared to help with the talk (simply reading it out was not permissible), artefacts and images brought in to help communicate, and a tape of the presen­tation, and so another credit was achieved.

Other faculties played their part – see the box below.

Examples of how faculties incorporated CoPE

  • Humanities felt that a focus on ‘research’ and ‘discussion’ would help the students gain more from their revision and completion of coursework. For example, an investigative study of Bristol Docks, utilising a mixture of internet browsing, face-to-face interviews, pedestrian and traffic counts proved an excellent vehicle for also evidencing the development and growth of research skills.
  • ‘Improving own learning and performance’ was assigned to PE and expressive arts, who also looked for opportunities to accredit ‘working with others’ through sports, dance, drama and musical activity attached to GCSE courses.
  • ‘Problem-solving’ fitted neatly into science and design technology (DT), especially the design realisation phase of the extended coursework element.

So, with a team of supporting tutors working on the plan-do-review sheets to go with the coursework that was accumulating, the CoPE portfolios were completed. The tutors were trained by ASDAN, and supported by regular visits over the six-months period. This was part of a city-wide support plan commissioned by the local authority, so that every school in Bristol benefited from direct support as well as from the chance to share learning with other schools. As expertise grows, the CoPE leaders within the schools take on the training and staff development role to spread best practice.

Role of personal development curriculum
But we did not want the CoPE qualifi­cation to simply be a short-term achievement solution, so our second strategy was to round up all those lessons that exist in the Key Stage 4 curriculum for statutory reasons (RE, ICT, PSHE, careers, active citizenship, and so on) and ‘brand’ them into what we called the ‘personal development curriculum’ (PDC).

We were able to allocate six lessons out of a 60-period fortnight to the personal development curriculum. A team of six specialists (in the identified subjects RE, ICT, PSHE, careers, active citizenship) was rec­ruited, and the students rotated around the team during the course of a year, con­ven­iently enabling six challenges in Year 10, and a further six in Year 11. The ‘10-hour challenges’ were carefully chosen to give a broad and balanced learning experience, mapping into the 12 possible areas of interest within the CoPE framework (see the box below), but also meeting statutory requirements for sex education, citizenship and RE, for example.

CoPE challenges: 12 areas of interest

  • Communication
  • Community and citizenship
  • Sport and leisure
  • Independent living
  • The environment
  • Vocational preparation
  • Health and fitness
  • Work-related learning and enterprise
  • Science and technology
  • International links
  • Expressive arts
  • Beliefs and ethic

The delivery of the subjects was subtly different: for example, instead of ‘learning about contraception’ and ‘teaching about contraception’, the challenge was to ‘improve your research and communica­tion skills by preparing an information pamphlet on a contraceptive of your choice for students a year younger than you’. When you unleash learning, you may have to be ready for the consequences: for example, some of the first draft cartoons needed to be toned down somewhat, and as for the ‘pop-up’ pamphlet…!

In addition to pupils accumulating evidence through the PDC route, faculties continued to embed personal skill development as part of the coursework experience. There was a staff training and development advantage to this strategy: subject teachers were not required to absorb the entirety of the CoPE standards framework in one go. Instead, they had a chance to study, absorb and implement a teaching and learning programme to address just one of the skill domains. It is a massive conceptual challenge to pick up and run with the whole CoPE framework, unless you have been delivering ASDAN programmes in the past, so this gradual approach helped to build staff confidence and competence with delivering this new qualification.

Initial problems
It was not all plain sailing. This was a late inter­vention strategy. Not all the pupils knuckled down, time was wasted, and opportunities missed. As a result, only 26 out of the 45 actually completed their portfolios for assessment. And ‘complete’ they had to be! ASDAN’s moderation meetings are rigorous and fair, but if a section in the portfolio is incomplete, the qualification cannot and will not be awarded. Also, it does take time for teachers to learn the standards and guide students to produce work that meets the standards. In fact, three folders submitted for early moderation did not get through. However, the post-moderation comments from ASDAN’s assessors were extremely helpful, ensuring that our challenges were finely retuned, to pass the relevant standards on next submission – as the example in this box illustrates.

Meeting the level 2 standard for working with others

The plan-do-review documents helped guide the students into working collaboratively, with its questions such as ‘What is the shared task?’, ‘What needs to be done, and who will do it, by when?’, ‘What are you going to do?’, and so on. However, although some discussion might have occurred, the process of working with others was very poorly evidenced. An easy trap to fall into is to submit the final PowerPoint presentation as an outcome of collaboration: but the journey, and the personal growth of the students on that journey needed to be there too. Schemes of work were rapidly changed: after every group discussion, students were encouraged to keep rough notes on agreed actions; then chairpersons and notekeepers were elected (even for a five-minute starter or plenary), and students were encouraged to reflect on their role as a chair or secretary. Another method of capturing the process was to keep a log of activity: What did you do? What did you learn? What will you do next lesson? Regional managers from ASDAN also visited the school, helped with standardising work, and helped teachers to think deeply about what makes for an appropriate challenge, for which appropriate skill area.

Did it work? At first, we were unsure. There appeared to be some pleasing attitudinal spin-offs. One such example was ‘Natalie’, your average disengaged Year 11 student with a quick tongue and an interesting manner with some staff. In the first interviews, when asked what she did in the evenings (as we searched for activities that could be accredited), she simply said ‘nuffick!’ Eventually, we discovered that, for the past three years, she had been helping out at her local Guides and Brownies Group (… ‘sumfink to do, innit?!’…). She became engaged and motivated when she was given credit for this community work, and this engagement spread into the other subjects. Natalie achieved five A*–C grades, when, eight months previously, there appeared no hope.

There are usually at least three local ASDAN moderation meetings in a school year so CoPE students felt very motivated and upbeat when they gained a GCSE equivalent before their friends had.

Results day in August 2006 was a delight. On GCSE grades alone, we touched 32% five A*-C (good for us!). But when another nine students were added to the stats because of the extra CoPE qualification – and in some cases achieving an Adult Literacy and Adult Numeracy (ALAN) basic skills Level 2 qualification too – our stats soared to 37%. What was particularly pleasing was the fact that nearly every member of staff felt ‘ownership’ of this boost, as coursework from nearly every subject contributed to the success of the CoPE outcomes.

In 2007, 50 students completed a Level 2 CoPE qualification, along with a similar number who managed all or part of the ALAN qualification too (as alternative accreditation supplements to their GCSE diet). The 2007 cohort was significantly weaker than the previous year. However, we still attained 41% five A*–C grades, which was comfortably the best results in the school’s history. We also achieved 27% of students gaining five or more A*–C grades including English and maths, which was equivalent to our FFT D indicator (equivalent to making progress with top quartile schools). In the new era of National Challenge, and the pressure being exerted to achieve the 30% benchmark irrespective of the starting point of your students, we were delighted to get so close to the target a year earlier than anticipated.

Engaging learners
It would be grossly unfair to suggest that all school improvement was due to CoPE (quality teaching and learning, rigor­ous tracking, mentoring, coaching, monitoring and support also featured significantly), but the ASDAN can-do curriculum certainly had a weighty impact.

The students were being given credit for what they could do, rather than being graded on what they couldn’t do. This kept them engaged in learning right up to and beyond the exam season. It was a remark­able and warming sight to see many Year 11s, after their formal exams had been completed in late June, coming to work in the library to finish off or tidy up their CoPE folders.
Another indicator of engagement was our five A*–C including English and maths results in 2007. We are again anticipating even better results in 2008, with hopefully 100 CoPE qualifications completed, and headline stats reaching the stellar 50% mark (stellar for us, that is!).

The brightest students in a school community can also benefit hugely from the CoPE experience too. CoPE Level 2 challenges can be used as gifted and talented activities in Key Stage 3. The CoPE Level 3 qualification is worth 70 UCAS points, and really does encourage the growth of high-level independent and transferable learning skills, and could be used to give breadth and enrichment at Key Stage 4.These are opportunities that we are actively considering, to stretch and challenge our most able students.

Preparing for PLTS agenda
The ASDAN CoPE qualification is preparing the school community for the personal learning and thinking skills (PLTS) agenda at the heart of the latest round of curriculum reform. PLTS are normally associated with the new diploma learning lines, but there is an expectation that every student at Key Stage 4 should in reality be benefiting from embedded and assessed PLTS. Through a remarkable bit of educational serendipity, there is an almost total mapping of the six PLTS domains into the CoPE accreditation framework. Simply put, you are delivering PLTS if you are delivering CoPE!

Taking stock A great deal of thought and planning needs to take place if CoPE is to be used across the whole school, with different teams of teachers helping to deliver aspects from within their subject areas.

CoPE cannot be taught from the front of the class. It has to be a conversation, a dialogue between teacher and learner. Once the generality of a challenge is presented to the class, individual students should then crystallise their own plan in their own way (this has to be the case to satisfy the Level 2 standards, but can be more relaxed if the ‘teacher-led’ Level 1 standard is the desired outcome). The teacher becomes the critical friend, rather than the delivery agent. In this way, the curriculum becomes co-constructed, rather than imposed or fixed. Some teachers can find this highly disturbing at first – but eventually, with experience, they can feel liberated from content-based restrictions and grading criteria.

ASDAN insists that student work is presented from each centre at ‘standardisation meetings’ throughout the year, before folders are submitted for final moderation. As well as securing quality assurance, this process also promoted sharing of good practice, which is one of the strengths of the ASDAN philosophy.

If CoPE is to be used across an entire cohort, a great deal of logistical planning is required to support the teachers delivering this programme of study. Because the CoPE qualification is awarded on the basis of evidence, it has to be accumulated, and stored, which creates resource implica­tions. Every student will need personal folders, and the CoPE team will need a centralised bank of filing cabinets to store completed work in an organised and easy-to-find way.

If coursework activity from a variety of faculties is used to evidence skill development, copying every single piece across the entire cohort could be extremely timeconsuming and expensive. We get around this problem by storing the actual coursework within each of the faculties (standard practice) and passing the supporting plan-do-review sheets and additional evidence to the CoPE team. If a student’s work is called for moderation by ASDAN, the work is recovered from the relevant faculties. Any work that we have to send to other exam boards, we copy beforehand just in case that student’s work is called for moderation by CoPE as well.

CoPE began at Bedminster Down nearly three years ago. We have made great progress, but we are still learning. Our most recent moderation event has thrown up a series of issues that need to be addressed. For example, more ‘process evidence’ is needed, rather than simply fixating on the outcome (diaries or logs of learning, draft work and reasons for change, selection of information after first attempts to research a topic, and so on).

We realise that colleagues in the CoPE team need time to meet, discuss and inter­nally moderate samples of work, which can be problematic when considering the number of meetings in a school week, and that most of them are already attached to faculties. There must also be time allocated to induct new members of staff into the challenge-based way of working.

Critical self-evaluation such as this plays a vital role in improving the quality and effectiveness of the curriculum. Teachers and our support staff involved in CoPE are becoming more and more creative in the way assignments and extended projects are being constructed. We are looking to draw in more and more learning from outside the school day into the accreditation framework (such as Saturday jobs, helping infirm relatives or neighbours, contributing to charity events, helping at local youth centres, football clubs).

There is no doubt that CoPE is helping us help our students perform beyond expec­ta­tions. We have learned many lessons along the way – the first box below gives advice on how to go about introducing CoPE, while the second box gives our top tips on how to develop this qualification to bring about improvements in student achievement.

Introducing ASDAN CoPE

  • Start with a small test cohort, and a small cross-faculty team of teachers
  • Ensure that staff have been trained by ASDAN lead professionals
  • Make sure there is enough curriculum time to complete the challenges involved
  • Look to existing school activities as sources for accreditation
  • Attend local standardisation meetings organised by ASDAN – meet other local professionals, and share activities, resources and approaches
  • Learn the standards, learn how to support and guide without directly leading students, and plan activities carefully, so that the students meet the standards as defined in the manuals
  • Use ASDAN regional managers or trained assessors to constantly check that you, and the students, are on track
  • Work out systems and procedures for collating and storing evidence (dedicated administrative support is vital if the cohort grows bigger than simply standalone option groups)
Growing CoPE

  • Ensure strategic leadership is in place, and agree a training and implementation plan (ask for help from ASDAN regional managers – someone somewhere may have done it already)
  • Look at your current formal curriculum – are there formal projects or coursework activities that can be used for more than one purpose (GCSE and CoPE, for example)?
  • Seek informal curriculum opportunities that may fulfil dual purposes (such as a Sports Specialist College running primary school sports events, giving students opportunities for community service, and helping with redesignation)
  • Ensure that adequate administra­tive support is used, as well as storage space for the folders (unless you choose the e-portfolio version of CoPE: but that’s another story!)
  • Extend your CoPE team – train your librarian and learning support assistants (LSAs) as CoPE moderators as well as your teachers, so that they can guide students too

Marius Frank, Headteacher, Bedminster Down School, Bristol