Bubbly Year 10 pod return to the classroom!

So, we are now in July, and according to the government, we are through the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic and life is beginning to break out of lockdown.  We have had about a quarter of the calendar year and more than ten teaching weeks away from our classrooms and we are starting to welcome students back into our secondary schools for face-to-face meetings. Currently, all of our Year 10 and 12 students are coming into school on a rota while we also continue with remote teaching and learning. So, how best can I support the 20 GCSE Science students in Year 10 that I am set to welcome? 

At the time of writing, the Government guidance states that only a quarter of Year 10 can return into school at any one time, with the maximum class size half what we were used to before Covid-19 and with social distancing measures in place.  This new style of delivery requires students to be placed in small groups known as ‘bubbles’ or ‘pods’ to reduce mixing.   However, there is an understanding that in order for specialist teachers to deliver lessons, there may be more mixing of staff between groups than has happened in primary phase.

Returning to school

Coming into school will be a shock, with students stepping out of the safety of their homes into an environment that is vaguely familiar.  This may unsettle some students as they face working with different groups of students and staff, as well as additional handwashing protocols.  Anxiety can be alleviated and managed by having online tours on the school website, with staff talking to camera and showing the new set-ups.  This will break down barriers and reassure students and parents that plans are in place, risk is managed and the return to school will be smooth.

When the big day arrives and students come back into school, the most important task is to make sure that they are feeling safe and calm.  Take the time to talk, listen and reassure as we all mix in a larger gathering than has been legal since April.

Mental health

Everyone’s experience of lockdown and the pandemic will be different.  Many of our students will be feeling loss and bereavement; not just the obvious grief if there has been a death in the family, but also grief for the loss of social contact with friends and family.  YoungMinds is a charity that aims improving young people’s mental health and wellbeing and they have a selection of resources to help with grief.

Little school girl leaning to wall , sitting on stairs of corridor and crying, near backpack. Pretty blonde girl in eyeglasses have sad mood, offended by her classmates. Concept of studying in school.
The mental health of our Year 10 students might need supporting

Some students will have enjoyed time at home, but for others losing the predictability of the school day will have been a struggle.  In addition, money worries and difficulty in getting food will have led to worry for some children.  This may be magnified because of parents being furloughed and the financial pressures that this can cause.  Stem4 is a charity that promotes positive mental health in teenagers and provides free Covid-19 mental health resources.

What does Covid-19 mean for GCSE exams in 2021?

Many students will have lost motivation as they have been learning remotely and not had the competition that a classroom setting gives.  In addition, students who work for a prize – the GCSE qualification – may have lost sight of this, as this year’s cohort did not have to sit exams.

So, part of the face-to-face sessions we run should be about increasing the motivation of the students and reminding them of what they need to do to get their qualification.  At the start of this academic year, no one foresaw the cancelling of the public exams, but this cohort needs to have their qualifications to enter the next phase of their life.  For the year above them, GCSE results are still set to be released on 20th August 2020, but instead of being based on exams, they are prepared from the school’s best estimates based on the candidates work to date prior to lockdown[1].  So, it is worth gently reminding our current Year 10s that what they are doing now could count directly towards their final grade!

What will the 2021 exam series be like?

The official stance by Gavin Williamson is that the 2021 series of exams will go ahead, but it is unclear what adjustments will be made.  Many of our students have lost at least 20% of their classroom teaching, so how could the exams be modified?  It isn’t as easy as just reducing the amount of content examined, as some schools teach in different orders based on their timetable and the specialisms of their staff.  Some schools deliver the Science GCSE in two years, others in three, so there will be a disparity between what different students have covered. 

At the moment, the exam boards are working with the DfE to determine a plan when they have a better understanding of the effects of coronavirus on teaching and learning.  But some of the solutions could include:

  • A delayed start date for the exam series to claw back classroom teaching time.
  • Students sitting the exam but teachers also supplying an assessment grade with rank to ensure that students are not disadvantaged.
  • Exams with reduced content.
  • Exams modified to include a choice of questions so that students avoid ones that they have not covered.
  • Open-book exams.

My double bubble

So, I find myself at the computer, putting together a small pamphlet of tasks designed to offer reassurance and boost my bubble’s confidence in their subject knowledge.  My pack starts with a warm welcome and then a list of GCSE topics that they have already covered.  Students add emoticons to judge how they feel, and when they return home they can use the textbook that has already been issued to note the page number for each section so they know where to get help from. 

FastTrack Science – Fast track your science revision with the ...
Looking forward to feeling more like me again, in a socially distanced lab teaching science.

I think the required practicals and exam technique are the key to GCSE Science, so, after some brief input from me with a question and answer session, I plan to go straight into my main activity of BUG-ing the Exam Pulse questions from Kerboodle, before students attempt them and assess their own knowledge.  

For the required practicals, I will be relying on video clips, such as those from Primrose Kitten, where students can see the practicals being demonstrated as well as hear a commentary about the process and the reasons behind certain steps.  I plan to back up this knowledge acquisition with exam questions to illustrate how that required practical is likely to be assessed.  This also allows a further opportunity to consolidate the BUG activity and focus on command words. And now I excitedly look forward to welcoming my double bubble with their staggered start and feeling more like me again….. teaching in the science lab.

Sam Holyman

Sam Holyman is Second in Science at Aylesford School in Warwick, and formerly West Midlands ASE President. She is also the author of a number of best-selling science textbooks for KS3 and GCSE (including the AQA GCSE Foundation: Combined Science Trilogy and Entry Level Certificate Student Book), and a keen advocate of innovative teaching and learning.

Sam was nominated in the Teacher Scientist category for the Science Council’s 100 leading practising scientists, is a Chartered Science Teacher, and has recently been awarded a CPD Quality mark.


[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/how-gcses-as-a-levels-will-be-awarded-in-summer-2020

Read More

Sam Holyman has also written on supporting the transition to secondary school in a pandemic year and about her own insights into Covid-19 testing.