Digital approaches to rethinking the English classroom in a post-16 GCSE English resit context, informed by student action research

Warrington + Vale Royal College

This project has involved funded developmental work on pedagogically ‘rethinking’ the English classroom for post-16 provision in the challenging context of addressing the needs of the GCSE English resit student cohort.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway.


We wanted to develop a particular focus on the digital aspect in our newly-formed approach to English, specifically into the potential impact this focus might have had on student engagement. We took the opportunities offered by the new ‘holistic’ Education Inspection Framework to inform our thinking as we set out to explore how to address the demands of the GCSE curriculum in ways that provided a different approach from that of an everyday school experience. Part of our proposal included structural and content change: this involved a different timetabling strategy and also introducing the use of GCSEPod to our students. This project has also given us a rich opportunity to develop our student-consultation work through student action research.


46% of our 16-18 cohort come to our college without English GCSE at grade 9-4, compared to 40% nationally; 17.6% of our students receive free college meals; 2.5% are looked-after children. Our cohort therefore consists of significant numbers of students who would be deemed vulnerable.

The demands of the GCSE English curriculum are significant for this resit cohort, many of whom struggled with English at school. We were keen to use this project as an opportunity to engage further with the cohort, find out more about their school experience and explore how it might compare to the regular English experience at college.

We know that our resit students are often quite disengaged and resentful at the compulsory nature of the GCSE resit, so we have been experimenting with finding ways to further engage them; this has involved exploring different forms of delivery and using more relevant content as a bridge to the exam-oriented school-based curriculum.

Through this project, we have attempted to find innovative ways to address the challenge presented by achievement gaps, especially in relation to vulnerable groups. All twenty-four participants had previously achieved either no English qualification or Grade 1 or 2 at GCSE. We wanted to find ways to bring about a step change in relation to their English skills, with a particular focus on reading skills, through a ‘reimagined’ approach. This, we thought, would raise student confidence and motivation to improve their performance and resilience. We hoped to find a more successful, ‘fresh’, relevant-to-students approach to teaching, learning and assessment of English which would have a positive impact on achievement, attendance and student experience.

One success is that we have achieved the time-tabling change, planned as part of our initial thinking when devising this project. English is now ‘delivered’ in three-hour sessions, to include a ‘workshop’, and we are establishing more creative approaches within these sessions. We intended to do this through developing collaborative and digital cross-college work, and by working with digital ‘experts’ at college, experimenting with targeted technology and consulting with our students to monitor, refine and review the impact we might be having in their learning. We believe we have achieved this to some extent.


We decided to adopt the following strategies: we would research and develop the GCSE English resit experience by exploring digital approaches in the classroom; ensure that training would be available for English teachers to facilitate this; devise a more holistic scheme of learning with a workshop approach; change timetabling to a 3-hour session.

In the autumn term, three English resit classes, made up predominantly of construction students (our most challenging area, including motor vehicle, plumbing, carpentry and joinery, and bricklaying,) were identified as appropriate participants for the research project.

We purchased the GCSEPod (a digital English ‘revision’ resource that could identify which skills needed development and recommend appropriate tailor-made support, based on student responses) and introduced it to classes as a ‘mobile’ revision resource. The idea of the GCSEPod was to use it to support student learning inside and outside the classroom.

Student surveys were carried out at the start of the project with the three groups. The aim of the starter-survey was to explore students’ prior learning experience of GCSE English, and their perspectives and attitudes in response to their English experience at school. It was also to gather information on their views regarding the effectiveness of using technology as a ‘teaching, learning and assessment’ tool. The survey responses were used to inform the students we were now calling our students-as-researchers in their own discussions about GCSE English.

This phase of student action-research involved twelve students; comprising a mixture from our student council and Level 3 courses, all of whom had already achieved GCSE English. We formed a student research group that would meet during Wednesday lunchtimes. The formation of this group took place after a one-day training day to ‘embed’ the project in the students-as-researchers framework; the aim also was to raise awareness about issues around the GCSE resits in a wider educational context and forge the group together as a ‘working group’.

These workshops took a participatory form, and were highly productive with a good deal of lively discussion. Each student was given a ‘project notebook’ in which to record ideas. Communication was sustained through the use of the WhatsApp group we created, as well as by uploading notes onto the student research site we had created on Google drive.
One-to-one interviews and focus groups were conducted by student researchers. After the first session we held a review session during which we reflected on how the process was proceeding and could be improved where necessary: for example, to arrange as focus groups with boy/girl mix leading the session rather than two boys or two girls. One of the reasons for this arrangement was that boy respondents seemed reluctant when faced with two girls leading the session.

The one-to-one sessions seemed to produce the most responses: students seemed more guarded in the focus group sessions, possibly because they were too aware of others so were not keen to speak out.

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

This work, once fully evaluated and disseminated, will inform our future planning and delivery of relevant training for teachers. The aim is then to roll it out to students within the English curriculum and as part of our embedding English skills cross-college. The changes we hope to see will be increased levels of attendance and better engagement in lessons; furthermore, we are already redesigning virtually all lessons. We hope to show a qualitative improvement in the work students produce, both within and beyond the classroom (a further advantage of GCSEPod is that it tracks the degree of student engagement).

We hope these changes in pedagogical approaches to English teaching, learning and assessment will lead to a significant improvement in learner experience and translate into reducing current achievement gaps in the performance of our vulnerable students and improving the overall achievement rates of our students in terms of ‘value added’.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

There has been an increased amount of collaboration by many teams, and this has further enhanced the positive, supportive and working culture of our college: the teams include the English team, the ‘Teaching and Learning’ team, the Creative & Media team, the Pastoral team, the IT network team, the Construction team, the Catering department, the Health and Social Care team, the Performing Arts Team and the Enrichment coordinator.

We hope that these changes in pedagogical approaches to English teaching, learning and assessment will lead to a significant impact on learner experience and translate into a reduction of the gaps in current achievement, as shown in the current performance of our vulnerable students, and thereby improving the overall achievement rates of our students in terms of ‘value added’. Strategies including end of survey responses, actual end of year results combined with student responses in focus groups, and one-to-one meetings will provide us with some idea as to the extent of the impact of our project on students’ learning.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Evidence of potential improvement in learners’ rates of achievement, retention and progression will, we trust, emerge throughout the course of this academic year. We hope significant amounts of evidence to show improvement in achievement will come through in August.

We can already see an improvement in attendance from last year, from its then 83.5% (among 16-18 year olds) to the current 85.2% for end of January 2020. This result shows that attendance has improved rather than declined, itself an indication that changes we have made in our approach could be having a positive impact. We trust we will also have evidence generated from student responses after an evaluation of our research.

We hope to produce evidence to show a qualitative improvement in the work students produce, by tracking engagement both within and beyond the classroom (such tracking is a feature of GCSEPod).

Learning from this project

This ‘pilot’ project demonstrates the need for a much longer stretch of time in which to conduct a lengthier study into how the resource may best be used. Our findings so far indicate that the Autumn term is a difficult term in which to begin a project of this kind in the context of an FE College. The reasons for this could include:

  • Students spend some weeks settling into their classes/courses of study.
  • Changes often take place as students switch around courses and/or classes.
  • Teachers and students need time to settle in before the possible disruption of any further external pressures and/or processes.
  • Induction is a major time-consuming activity during the first six weeks or so of the Autumn term.
  • The GCSEPod didn’t really get going until after Autumn half-term. Teachers needed training prior to its introduction, involving a good deal of time-consuming administration followed by initial teething problems, all needing to be resolved as students signed up to the course.
  • Realistically the student action research group could not be fully established until after the student council had been formed; there were unforeseen staffing changes here which delayed the establishment of the new student council, from which student researchers were recruited.
  • And then inspection hit, though we had been anticipating it. As a result, a good deal of time and energy were understandably taken up, a factor that interfered with a number of new initiatives such as this project, given that our capacity is quite stretched. However, the student action research group did become established at the end of the Autumn term, even though it did not really get going until the first week of the Spring term.

The summary so far reports the reality of the situation and its consequences. The upshot was to show the limits imposed by an unrealistic time frame that did not fit in with the academic rhythms, capacity and pressures in our FE College working year, whether as students or teachers.

In the event, our ambitious idea of developing Google classroom as a ’whole-college’ digital approach that would further embed the knowledge, understanding and application of spelling, punctuation and grammar skills did not materialise. Sadly, we simply did not have the capacity to achieve this aim.

However, what this project does show is that this is a very exciting and interesting field of study; there is a great need for researching the effects of the current English curriculum on post-16 students on vocational courses in far greater depth and detail than is currently the case.

It is valuable for us to hear from the students themselves, and their teachers, about how they think they could best develop their English skills to maximum effect in terms of their chosen ‘vocation’. It would also be valuable to know, at least broadly, the extent to which the current system does or does not fulfil these needs and wishes.

It would also be useful to learn about the resit cohort’s school experience of English and the impact this may have had on their engagement with English skills, knowledge and understanding. What we have learned so far from this project is that, given half the chance, students may have a lot to say about their education, to one another and to ‘us’ as ‘educators’.

We have also learned that student-led action research has great potential; we have witnessed the energy, enthusiasm and ideas generated when students start doing their own research. Our experience was that students who participated as researchers in this project had greater opportunities to develop important necessary investigative and intellectual skills. They also broadened their engagement with the wider college community, worked with students cross-college and with teachers and other staff in a new, different capacity, now beyond ‘the classroom’.

As part of this process, we have learned that using the GCSEPod has proved to be positive for most students and all teachers in the English resit classroom, albeit 95% agreed that they prefer working on their English and preparing for the exams in their GCSE English lessons with the teachers rather than using the GCSEPod.

We have also gained invaluable insight about the research process itself, the potential pitfalls and the strengths. One of the major pitfalls is lack of time, whereas social media platforms emerge as a major strength in terms of sustaining communication between our weekly workshop meetings.

Our ‘Students-as-researchers’ strategy provides a useful and interesting research methodology to give us different insights into the teaching, learning and assessment process and the educational experience itself, from a student-led approach that is invaluable and necessary from a student perspective.

This project has served as an awareness-raising exercise, a means of reflection for those working both inside and outside a Post-16 context. It is important to appreciate what has been going on for these students at school and the way they bring this with them when they arrive in our classrooms. This helps us understand why the so-called ’failure’ rate is so high.

From the student responses we gathered we are able to have some idea of what is faced, day in day out, by teachers and students as we try to break down the barriers that have been the experience of so many of these young people. When it comes to the subject of English, the alienating experience that has been enshrined in the GCSE English syllabus and its method of assessment is evident, experienced initially at school and then, unfortunately for many, continued at College. The responses from the students involved in our research confirm, to some extent, what we already know.

So many deeper and more probing questions and responses remain to be explored, discussed and acted upon. We have just managed to skim the surface in the limited window of time and resources available to us. So much more work needs to be done to address why it should be the case that school is not ‘fit for purpose’ for too many students, grounded as it is in the ‘academic’ model of education and which we in the Post-16 sector are left to try and fix.