Developing Resilience and Motivation in GCSE English resit learners

Buckinghamshire College Group

This project aimed to create processes and resources to aid the development of a more positive learner mindset towards the study of GCSE English for 16-18 year old learners.

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


Our approach focused on two specific strands:

Strand one included the use of ‘heat maps’ to identify strengths and weaknesses in skills needed for the qualification.

Strand two focused on delivery of activities alongside the GCSE English curriculum that developed learner resilience, engagement and motivation with the subject.

Stakeholders involved in the project were: GCSE learners, five members of teaching staff, five Advanced Practitioners, the Curriculum Manager for English and the Faculty Director for English and Mathematics.


According to the Department for Education nearly 80% of learners that fail their GCSE English exam at school will go on to fail their resit at College. This presents a significant challenge for the whole FE sector, and with over 800 learners currently sitting GCSE English at Buckinghamshire College Group it was an area that we wanted to explore further.

As we know, learners who are typically resitting GCSE English often display disengagement and demotivation with the idea of progressing with the subject.

Learners have often experienced failure and are therefore entrenched in the view that the subject is too difficult and they are never going to get a better grade. The project, therefore, wanted to address the issue of learner resilience in the development of English Skills within GCSE lessons and develop resources and processes that would encourage a more positive growth mindset towards their study.

The aim was to enable learners to move from being disengaged and unmotivated, through a series of activities that would give them the understanding and the tools to develop skills and characteristics to become more motivated and engaged.


Our approach focused on two specific strands:

The use of ‘heat maps’ which should then inform the adoption of generic schemes of work, activities and resources within lessons to enable ‘responsive’ teaching that would meet the needs and subsequent starting points of all learners. It was hoped that this would enable learners to see what they were good at, what they needed to focus on and that the learning approach at college was to build on their previous skills and knowledge. This, it was hoped, would remove the negative ideas of starting again or being taught what they already knew.

Strand two focused on the delivery of activities alongside the GCSE English curriculum to develop learner resilience, engagement and motivation with the subject. Activities were developed around the VESPA model created and developed by Steve Oakes and Martin Griffin (2018).

To facilitate the implementation of the above strands the following was completed:

  • Development and inclusion of cross-college marking and feedback guidelines (Figure 4b-1).
  • Initial briefing to English and maths staff on the strategic plan for the year and the approach we would be researching within the remit of the project. Initial feedback indicated that some staff were excited about the prospect of doing action research, whereas some were concerned about how they would deliver GCSE content and motivational activities within a lesson.
  • Development and selection of activities to infill into GCSE scheme of work. As the project progressed this later became a separate schedule of key activities to complete for each month.
  • Development of homework books for GCSE English to facilitate independent learning
  • Completion of commercial / in house assessments to inform ‘heat map’ development.
  • Implementation of the first resilience task.
  • Campus briefings across all sites covering: English and maths strategic plan; development of resilience and engagement skills through the OTLA project; marking and feedback of English and maths skills; use of ‘heat maps’ (Figure 4b-2).
  • Support for staff in developing a more responsive approach to delivery.
  • Governor Training day focusing on the use of ‘heat maps’ as well as an overview of the project and the expected outcomes. This was then followed with learning walks within English and maths to see how the ‘heatmaps’ and activities were being used within lessons. This gave Governors a greater understanding of the learners we have, their varied starting points, the skills they need to develop to achieve a grade 4 in GCSE English and a greater awareness and understanding of the challenges within this area.
  • Implementation of further resilience activities.
  • Learner focus groups to gain feedback on the delivery of GCSE, use of ‘heat maps’ and use of resilience style activities.
  • Further implementation and feedback on resilience activities.

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

We are beginning to see, through learning walks and observations, more responsive and personalised learning being facilitated in lessons with a gradual move from very teacher centred delivery covering the whole syllabus to more experiential teaching and learning activities. Delivery is focused through the heat maps on what topics or areas the learners need to know and then scaffolding activities and resources according to the RAG rating to then enable learners to develop skills and knowledge according to their starting point and own needs.

However, this sustained change will take time to foster and develop across all three sites as the majority of staff are new to teaching. Therefore, they are continually learning and developing their craft to deliver GCSE English. This has meant that Advanced Practitioner support to facilitate responsive teaching through the use of ‘heat maps’ has been crucial in developing staff confidence and resilience.

The ’Vespa’ resources have given a structured approach to tackling learner motivation and resilience and have led to more discussions about how learners feel about studying English and what is possibly preventing them from achieving; this has enabled learners to identify strategies of intervention. Directly delivering these activities within the GCSE classes has certainly facilitated this process and we felt that this increased its effectiveness, as learners could make those direct links which may have been lost if the activities had been completed within tutorials.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

Because of the work during the project, this new team are developing working partnerships and relationships across each of the sites: we are now seeing more collaboration in planning and delivery. Some staff have found team teaching with each other or the Advanced Practitioners valuable in enabling them to experiment with different strategies, techniques and activities to further engage and motivate learners.

When we reflected on our initial plan for the project, we quickly realised that to bring about what is essentially a cultural change amongst learners, our initial steps would not be enough and we would need to develop a whole college approach. This meant that we added more actions to our plan around developing this organisational approach which included: wider awareness raising though campus briefings; delivery to governors during their training day; and developing a consistent marking policy.

We also identified that our English teaching team would need support, and reassigned some of our Advanced Practitioners to support teaching staff within English. The result is that we now have a solid foundation on which to build, with ’buy-in’ from English teaching staff and Advanced Practitioners to deliver and support more experiential learning linked to learner areas of development. There is also greater understanding from Governors and vocational teaching staffing of the challenges within this area. Subsequently this has led to more effective support and ensured continuation of our initial idea and plan past the end date of the project.

We plan to continue to use heat maps in the next academic year and will consolidate development of ‘responsive’ teaching. We will also revise our delivery of ‘Vespa’ style activities as a result of our research this year and will implement our changes and further develop our approach.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

During a December focus group, learners fed back positively on the concept of ‘heat maps’ and liked the idea of knowing what they were good at and what they needed to do to make progress. They also liked the idea that these were being used to inform learning, as most disliked the idea of re-learning what they already knew. They also liked the fact that college was more relaxed than school, that there were fewer learners in the class and there was more independent learning. They also felt that resources used were good in enabling them to develop skills and knowledge.

Most learners seemed to be finding the ‘Vespa’ activities useful and valuable in the short term, although it is a little too early to ascertain the long-term effects of these activities on end of year achievement. However, in terms of in-class activities staff have feedback that some learners are building their resilience. They are keen to know how their heat map has changed and what progress they have made or how their scores in tests are increasing.

Learning from this project

Staffing challenges did, at times, have an impact on time dedicated to the project. However, already having a heatmap format in place that had worked previously did aid progress in this part of the project in the first term. It reminded us of the importance of keeping the scale of the project small and how useful it can be to build on previous learning which then provided an effective structure to complement the implementation of the ‘Vespa’ activities.

Researching ‘Vespa’ activities as part of our application process also helped as we had already identified some activities that we could use. However, the interesting point here is that we picked activities we thought learners would like, or what may be useful to them and put them into an embedded scheme of work that linked to key English learning, mock exams and other key dates. However, when it came to delivery, we realised this was not the case. For example, resilience task 2 was completed in January, yet we would now move this to the beginning of the year as a productive opening discussion on all aspects of the study programme.
We realised that we had not put enough thought into the differences in motivation across curriculum areas. We also realised that our scheme of work was not differentiated to meet these differences within curriculum areas. Some learners responded to activities more positively than others and we now plan to develop our ‘Vespa’ scheme of work to also consider activities for different vocational areas and vocational levels.

We also discovered that some staff were missing out the implementation of activities when they were embedded into the scheme of work. Consequently, a more overt schedule was needed to keep up to date with our delivery plan and more activities within a month were needed to enable a more effective and regular approach.

We also put more time and energy into a whole organisation approach, as we realised that this structure and support from colleagues across the college would be needed to facilitate the changes in learner behaviour, and that our original steps and teaching team alone would not be enough to bring about this change. This approach was not part of the original plan and did in some ways the hinder immediate implementation of the ‘Vespa’ tasks. However, on reflection, this was the right decision for our college and will enable us to continue with the use of ‘heat maps’ and ‘Vespa’ style activities beyond the end of the project.

This is now possible, as all colleagues have a greater understanding of the challenges learners face, the strategies or activities we can implement and the messages we can reinforce across the whole study programme. We learned that in order to significantly improve learner motivation and resilience the approach needs to be consistent across all aspects of the study programme to enable learners to make these changes and stick to them. It also enabled English staff to feel more supported and less like they were battling to develop learners on their own.