They’ve been a long time coming – two years, in fact – but old-school exams are back. For many teachers it’s a ‘ta-ra and good riddance’ to the U-turning, ersatz emergency assessment measures and a (cautious, in some quarters) welcome return to a familiar – largely dependable – format so terribly disrupted by Covid-19.
But, for the year 11 and 13 pupils actually sitting their GCSEs and A-levels this year, the comeback preludes a leap into unknown territory rather than the annual rite of passage previous cohorts accepted and prepared for as part of their school career.
It’s something Lara Pechard, headmistress of Herts independent St Margaret’s, is acutely – and sympathetically – aware of. She says, “There are some gaps in their knowledge – not the subjects – but the experience, knowing what to expect; it’s a worry for them.”
Exam halls or nothing
Nerves, says Lara – whose charges number 560 pupils, including 60 international boarders – had been jangled enough among the upper sixth to warrant some novel mitigation ahead of the mocks.
“Our head of sixth form took them into an exam hall to get a feel of what it’s like. It sounds ridiculous, because although they’ve done exams at home, under time conditions, online and sent them in – which worked very well – they’ve never sat a conventional exam, together, in a hall.”
But, even after the tour, staff picked up lingering doubts among pupils – not unreasonably given the events of the last two years – that some emergency measure will rise up to prevent them collectively sitting down in the hall anyway.
Throughout my career people have been banging on about not doing assessments in this way, but after all the upsets and uncertainty…
Lara says they’ve been, gently, disabused of that.
“We’ve told them that, both year groups, with some certainty, ‘you’re going to do exams, you’re going to be assessed and it won’t be by the school, things are going to be a little tougher’. But, of course, I get why they might think that the exams might not happen in the traditional way, again,” says the head, summoning a ‘once-bitten, twice-shy’ scenario familiar to educators the nation over.
“It was a body blow, a huge shock, when they made the announcements in 2020. I can still remember that feeling of ‘they did what?!’. It was very unsettling for everyone, especially the children. So, part of me didn’t trust what we were told last year – and the year before – but I do think this is the year where we don’t get a sudden U-turn.”
Stepping up to the plate
St Margaret’s swung into action the moment they got wind of the emergency measures in 2020. “We always said we would make pupils do some sort of exam, in some form. We couldn’t make them, because if they’d had Covid-19 in their family two minutes beforehand, it would be impossible, but for that year group our children generally do very well in terms of preparation for exams.”
Weary of the issues surrounding Centre Assessed Grades in 2020, St Margaret’s policy towards 2021’s year 11 and 13 candidates was one of tough love. “It was challenging for them, but we were firm and consistent, ‘we’re going to examine you, we’re going to do assessment at common points across the courses’. It was a fairly rigorous process because there was always this doubt, externally, about how they were going to take those grades.”
Pupils, she says, naturally felt unmoored by events, but in terms of CAGs, “… we were prepared and strong as a result of the steps we took, we felt pretty protected… eventually, given the numerous last-minute U-turns. It was exhausting for us, but the pinch was taken out because there were no surprises on results day – only good ones.”
Like the upper sixth, this year’s 11s are entering the exam fray with a blank sheet in their frame of reference, too. Not academically, but in terms of the culture and lore that develops outside of the exam hall.
They have missed out on witnessing the experiences of their fellow pupils in the years above; the build-up to exams, the coping-mechanisms and the like.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of year 11s recently and that’s quite a common theme: that there hasn’t been an opportunity to observe older pupils – their siblings, children in the same teams or clubs, even just overhearing things on the bus – going through what they’re about to.
I wouldn’t say the children actually enjoyed them (the mocks). But that’s the point!
I absolutely get what they mean, learning from those observations outside of lessons is a kind of unwritten part of school, but that’s been replaced with this… well, gap, there’s very much a sense that they’ve had to, not exactly make it up as they go along – we haven’t just left them to it, they’ve had lots of support – but certainly find their own path through the experience.”
Lara is pleased to report that there’s a general consensus in the cohorts that “… they absolutely WANT to have the exams. What they found hard, conceptually, back in September, up to around the start of February, was that uncertainty. I think they actually welcome that clarity.”
A dress rehearsal in the shape of the mocks certainly helped. “It was a very good test-run. We were quite careful about how we prepared them for it: we didn’t just leave them to go wild; we made it a proper experience.”
The onus was/is on teaching good revision strategies that are focused on achievable working practices, not both ends of the candle incineration.
Dynamic revision has been key. “I think you could argue that children find concentrating harder because of what’s happened in the last few years. Short, sharp, focused bursts of revision is the best strategy – not dedicating entire days to revising one subject; it won’t work.
“A pupil recently announced to me that she was going to ‘do Chemistry for a whole day’. I know for a fact she doesn’t get on well with chemistry – a whole day would have been pointless, so we took a little look at her planning. We need to install the habit of keeping a structured timetable and making sure children use their time effectively.”
I can still remember that feeling of… ‘they did what?!’
Mindfulness exercise encourages the kids to take on the nerves.
“We say, ‘Try and visualise the exam room, think about what a good exam looks like and what you want at the end of it.’ We’ve done quite a bit of this with our children; in particular, children who may have encountered problems or anxiety during lockdown and the thought of exams is now a big deal. They need to keep in mind something positive and fun to look forward to, to push for, after the exams.”
Most important is that the children need to know they’re not alone. There’s a team behind them at the school, but just as important are the cheerleaders at home.
“We always make sure parents are involved. We want parents to talk to their children about how their child might be feeling and, especially in recent times, to understand that their child’s experience is probably quite different to the eldest brother or sister.”
Familiarity breeds relief
Mocks out of the way and the real thing now looming, in some respects it feels to Lara as if formal exams had never gone away. “Well,” she laughs, “as it ever was, I wouldn’t say the children actually enjoyed them. But that’s the point! Of course, there were the normal anxieties and nerves, and hard work that come with the GCSE mocks, but they came through reassured that they’re on their way with clear indications of how they’re doing and where they need to improve.”
So, is the head pleased to see the old order established? “Throughout my career people have been banging on about not doing assessments in this way – and, certainly, all the administration of internal exams always comes when you least want it – but actually, yes, I think it’s the best form of checking a child’s understanding and, after all the upset and uncertainty, there’s a feeling of confidence that it’s ‘business as usual’.”