Ask your teachers these important questions
It’s important to find out details of the subjects your son or daughter is studying, how they are taught and how they are examined. That way you can make proper study plans, buy the best resources and prepare well for all the exams.
First – how to get in touch?
You can find answers not only by asking the teachers, but from the school website. Ask your son or daughter to find out as much as possible, look through the schools website in detail, making notes, and see how much you can get from school reception. This will answer some of the questions that I’ll list in a moment.
For the others, phone the school and make an appointment to see each of the subject teachers. Getting in touch with the teacher for all subjects may be going too far, so just make sure that you meet those that are teaching the core subjects of Maths, English and Science.
You may be lucky and they can talk to you on the phone right then. However, I recommend that you arrange to meet them at school. It’s much easier to form a good working relationship if you’ve actually met. And teachers generally appreciate the fact that you’ve taken the time to be involved.
Now, teachers are often frantically busy, but I’ve found that, as long as you’re not going to take up more than ten minutes or so of their time, they are often available before or after school, or occasionally during breaks.
When making an appointment, make it clear that you know they are busy and that you will only take a few minutes of their time to introduce yourself and ask some questions about the course they are teaching so that you can do your best to help them. You could email the questions beforehand, which can speed up the process.
Prepare for the meeting by writing down the questions you want to ask. There’s nothing as frustrating as making a big effort to meet and then forgetting to ask an important question.
“Which set is my child in – out of how many?”
“What is the average predicted grade for this set?”
“Is the subject tiered, and if so, will they be entered for the foundation or higher tier, or has that not been decided yet?
Not all GCSE subjects have tiers. Most do, including the core subjects of Maths, English and Science. But your teacher may not have decided yet which tier to enter your child for.
I’ve had many students who have been placed in bottom or near bottom set, and they really struggle to move up, despite their best efforts. It’s sometimes as if the school has given up on them. If your teenager is in the bottom set, you need to ask the teacher what it will take to move them up.
“ What is the exam board for this subject?”
This is not relevant if you’re son or daughter is in year seven of eight.
For GCSEs in England and Wales there are four exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, OCR and WJEC, and there’s one covering Northern Ireland: CCEA. There can be different exam boards for each subject and, sometimes, there may be a choice of courses involving different boards for a single subject – especially in science. See the sections on Maths GCSE and Science GCSE for a list of current courses.
This information will be essential if you decide to buy resources such as textbooks and revision guides or to find online resources such as exam papers, examiners’ reports, course specifications and exam dates.
“Is there any internal assessment?”
Some courses have some form of internal assessment, such as coursework, although the recent changes to GCSEs mean that this is less common. For example, there is no science practical exam (controlled assessments) for the new courses that started in 2016. Find out what, exactly, is required and when the assessments will take place.
“When are the exams and the mock exams?”
Exams are in Summer. Some can be taken in November. Make sure you know! Take mock exams seriously! They can determine whether your son or daughter is moved to another set or another exam tier. And they are essential practice for the real thing, so prepare for them as if they are the real exam.
“How much homework is expected?”
Will there be any homework at all? Will it be regular or will it be set as needed to support class-work? How much will there be? Will it be written in a homework diary? Should my son or daughter be doing extra work in addition to set homework? My personal answer to this is definitely Yes! Don’t rely on school to give you enough work, especially if you want a decent grade.
If your teenager says that they don’t get homework, while the teacher has told you they should be getting plenty, you’ll be able to do something about it. The government used to recommend between 1.5 and 2.5 hours per day for years 10 and 11. That may come as a shock to many parents, let alone students!
“What learning resources will the school provide and what else can I get from school?”
What does the school supply? Normally, there is a course text-book. But the school may not allow it to be taken home. They might sell revise guides at a discount – usually those published by www.cgpbooks.co.uk . I always recommend buying your own copy of the recommended text-book.
There may be other products that the teacher knows about that they could recommend. Some schools use online teaching aids, such as Sam Learning. Does you child have access to these?
Will the school supply a good set of exam papers? Do they recommend downloading papers from the internet?
“When will I get a progress report?”
The teacher may be reluctant to suggest that you get more regular feedback than the usual yearly report – they are very busy – but it’s worth asking. More regular feedback will help if there are problems during the year – you’ll be more able to do something about it. Things change quickly and unpredictably during the teenage years – as I’m sure you know!
“What is the best way to keep in touch?”
If all goes well, you will usually only need to contact your teenager’s subject teachers, although the exams officer may be easier to get hold of for questions about courses and exam entry.
If you feel a little shy about talking to school staff, just remember that they are there to serve you. So have the confidence to ask anything you like, because it’s your right to know.
I’m sure there are other good questions, but those were the important ones that occur to me. The important thing is to make contact and try to develop a good working relationship with teachers, heads of subject and exams officer.
Do you have other questions that you’d like to ask? Do let me know and I’ll add them here. And don’t forget to remain good-tempered, even if you feel you are not being heard. There is no point, ever, in appearing to be bad-tempered – it simply makes things worse – so keep smiling! And lastly, if you don’t yet get my email newsletter, click here and I’ll keep you up to date with new articles, news and videos on how you can help your teenager to succeed in their exams.
If you have questions about this topic, do ask me. Use the contact form below.