What is Past is Prologue

When some students leave school at 16, barely able to read and write, or with an identical literacy profile to the one that they had at the age of 11, we need to stop and think – what has happened in the last five years? This is not an attempt to lay blame at the hands of teachers. I wrangled with this question for ten years as a Head of English. I recognise the plethora of factors that come into play when we reflect on low achievement and outcomes. A spectrum of abuse and neglect; the instability of home-lives; the crippling impact of poverty on just about every factor of a child’s education, and the value-systems that are not always compatible with the outcomes that our education system values – these hover like an intangible mist below our analysis.

Yet, we analyse. That third Thursday in August arrives and we analyse. We pick at GCSE exam data, looking for patterns in the questions, the answers, the unanswered questions. ‘Post-mortem’ is right. We glower over norm-referenced grading – that erroneous phrase that we use when, in fact, we mean ‘cohort-referenced’. In using the incorrect terminology, we spectacularly miss the very point that we’re analysing one cohort of individuals in the hope that we’ll improve the performance of next year’s entirely different cohort of individuals. We’re analysing data five years too late. That horse has bolted.

We need to look at where the gaps lie 5 years prior to this point. Analysis after results day is very useful, if we want to know where we went wrong for a group of students for whom we can no longer help. Of course, it’s also useful to look at patterns within that cohort, and I appreciate the need to understand the performance of a cohort. But it’s not the most useful exercise if we want to analyse data to improve outcomes for the next cohort. We talk a lot about personalisation and a ‘tailored’ curriculum, yet we craft our lessons based on the performance of a group of people who have left the building.

KS2 data is phenomenal. Each secondary school is provided with a summary of results – this much we know. What is also provided (from the data-god in the sky) is a breakdown of exactly what each child can and can’t do. We are handed, on a plate, a dataset that tells us exactly where each child missed the mark in the SATs. This could – and should – be used to inform our planning and curriculum. This doesn’t need to mean a rewrite of everything. It means that we can look at individuals and realise that this kid really struggled with inference or this one is a terrible speller but blimey he can analyse a text. I’m not advocating a return to the days of three thousand worksheets for each class, and a differentiated set of learning objectives to just about finish off your marriage. I’m talking about having a deep understanding of where each of your students is at the start-point, and making sure that what we provide for them is apt for plugging the gaps.

Here’s what you’re given:

Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling (GPS)

  • The GPS score broken down by question, along with an overview of the students who are starting with you in Y7, their score as a percentage, the national average, and the difference. It will also tell you the percentage of students who attempted this question.
  • A list of your Y7 pupils and their percentage score in the spellings (you are also given the spellings in the test paper).
  • A breakdown of your school’s performance in the spellings by the word.
  • Each child’s performance in these areas:
    • Grammatical terms / word classes
    • Functions of sentences
    • Combining words, phrases and clauses
    • Verb forms, tense and consistency
    • Punctuation
    • Vocabulary
    • Standard English and formality

Reading Data

  • A breakdown, by pupil, of their performance in:
    • Give / explain the meaning of words in context
    • Retrieve and record information / identify key details from fiction and non-fiction
    • Summarise main ideas from more than one paragraph
    • Make inferences from the text / explain and justify inferences with evidence from text
    • Make comparisons within the text
  • An overview of your Y7 cohort’s performance by each of these areas (above)


You are given the same level of detail for each of the Maths papers (all three!). Tell your HoF for Maths.

What do I do with this information?

Imagine you have your QLA data in front of you for the English GCSEs. Now imagine that you have this five years’ earlier. What would you do differently if you could go back to that point? Actions will look different in every context, but as a starting point, here are some examples of simple shift that could be made:

  • Work out where the spelling gaps are. Here are some spelling sheets arranged by pattern. Keep plugging away at them.
  • Identify the patterns of reading skill and what has challenged them. Look to your LPA/MPA/HPA groups and don’t make assumptions. For example, if your HPAs struggled to make comparisons, then now is the time to adjust your curriculum to make sure they are given time and practice in this area.

This can’t be tokenistic. It doesn’t take much to tune into your cohort and adapt to them. The same approach to broad groups, without an understanding of each starting point, will continue to result in the same outcomes.

I wrote this ages ago and didn’t publish. I would like to also clarify that I do not work at a PiXL school – I now understand that this is a PiXL strategy too, but I only found this out today from @MsMaster13