How we achieved our best ever science results


Zarina Ali discusses how her team supported GCSE double and triple science students, many of whom were on free school meals, to help achieve their school’s best ever results.

Heading up the science department at a school in east Manchester, one of the most deprived inner city areas, proved to be one of the most rewarding yet toughest years I have had.

The catchment area is challenging; nearly 60 per cent of pupils have been eligible for free school meals (FSM) at some point in the past six years, 13 per cent of pupils have English as an additional language and 10 per cent of pupils have SEN. The school strives to be a safety net that allows students to be themselves and succeed. 

The challenge

Our 2011 cohort studying GCSE double/triple award science was the largest we had ever had, with the majority of boys eligible for FSM. Edexcel had introduced a new specification and had also introduced extended writing questions within the exams. Added to that, new rules restricted the number of times pupils could re-sit their exams.

Meanwhile, our 15-strong teaching staff included two recently qualified teachers, one NQT, and one member of staff who was on a support plan after their teaching had been judged “inadequate”. My goals were ambitious but clear: 

  • To ensure all year 10 double award pupils in this cohort achieved two A* to C grades.

  • To ensure all year 10 triple award students in this cohort achieved three A* to C grades.

  • To ensure all year 10 White British boys on FSM achieved their target grades or better.

In order to achieve my goals, I focused on four key areas: training and resources; literacy; the use of data; and quality of teaching and leaning.

Training and resources

I was aware that training would be needed to ensure that staff fully understood the new changes and were confident enough to teach all specifications and specialisms. Staff received training on the new specification, the implications of both the new extended writing questions and the new rule that 40 per cent of the course’s examined contents had to be sat in the end-of-year exam.

Using specialist teams, I built a series of practical resources – for example, producing a step-by-step guide to using new electronic equipment for NQTs – which would allow us to teach successfully and also adhere to the new Ofsted framework. I took the time to quality-assure all the resources for consistency and to maintain staff motivation and ethos. As a result, some difficult conversations took place, but these were necessary in order to ensure the resources being delivered in class by inexperienced teachers were as effective as the resources that my outstanding teachers were delivering.

The importance of literacy 

Many of our students had English as an additional language, a worry given the introduction of the long structured questions. We quickly identified literacy as a key component in exam success and so the whole department worked closely with the school’s literacy co-ordinator to ensure there was consistency in our approach towards extended writing.

We used the same methods as the English and humanities departments – using existing tools to improve literacy levels and develop students’ understanding. Building these strong cross-curricular links allowed us to tackle literacy as a whole-school issue. Using a consistent method across the school resulted in an increase in students’ confidence and thus a belief in their ability to succeed.

Data, data, data

In order to achieve success and empower students to fulfil their potential within science, I was acutely aware that interventions had to be personalised. My goal was to ensure that every teacher could access and analyse student data. As a result, I took the following actions:

  • Working closely with the exams officer we created basic spreadsheets for the transition matrices found within the RAISEonline document. I then rolled-out training on how to use these so staff could see the progress levels of students 

  • Explaining in full detail the target-setting and assessment procedure that had been set, and the levels of progress that must be made within key stages 3 and 4.

  • Setting up an assessment working party which trained the department further on how to mark successfully to allow the students to make more progress. This included training on acknowledgement, praise and next step marking, so that a student fully understood their pathway to progress.

  • Throughout data checks and book scrutinies I was able to monitor and guide colleagues who required additional support. This all allowed for excellent in-house interventions where different activities were being planned for small groups and students’ homework was differentiated depending on their area for improvement.

  • Running lunchtime intervention sessions at a faculty level.

  • Maintaining parental contact.

I monitored and tracked all students every five weeks to ensure they were set to hit or exceed their target grades and built a whole-school picture for the leadership team comparing their grades to national averages. As a result of the interventions above, the gap between sub groups was narrowing and after each set of data input, the picture for science was getting better.

Quality of teaching and learning

To improve teaching and learning within the department I introduced a programme that focused specifically on teachers that were rated below “good”. 

Working to improve lesson delivery and confidence in planning short, medium and long term, I conducted honest discussions with staff regarding areas of strengths and weaknesses, relating these back to the national professional standards. 

Together we set three target areas for each term, identifying the evidence needed to show completion of these targets.

I took the time to personalise individual intervention routes for each of these teachers, from observations of starters, to team-planning and team-teaching.

Simultaneously, I provided training sessions on understanding and implementing the school’s Behaviour for Learning policy, including how to include a diverse range of learning activities in line with the Ofsted criteria.

The outcomes

The collaborative and supportive approach paid off. Once I’d built up trust, staff were not afraid to question my decisions which resulted in a brilliant reflection tool. 

Ultimately the results speak for themselves. We achieved the best ever science results in the history of the school. In their GCSEs, 90 per cent of students achieved A* to C, including 100 per cent of triple award pupils, and 96 per cent of additional award pupils. Also, 100 per cent of the British White male FSM group either met or improved upon their target grades.

Furthermore, 13 out of the 14 team members achieved “good” or “outstanding” in their lesson observations, and the CPD programme has been implemented across the school for teachers who require improvement. 


  • Work as a team to build up a series of resources, which you quality-assure as head of department and which all teachers can access.

  • Work closely with the school’s literacy co-ordinator to ensure a consistent approach across the whole school.

  • Be supportive and open minded. This will allow for good working relationships and for staff to feel secure in identifying development areas.

  • Ensure every member of your team can access and understand student data.

  • Personalise interventions as much as you can.

  • CPD is critical – ensure staff training is specific and regular.

  • Your team is your biggest ally. The success of the department relies on teamwork, so do all you can to get staff buy-in as soon as possible.

  • Zarina Ali is now assistant headteacher at Failsworth High School. Last year she completed the Teaching Leaders Fellows Programme and was awarded the Pearson Prize for her two-year Impact Initiative.

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