Thoughtless examiners

While I am the last person who would advocate for whitewashing the ancient world, I do sometimes wonder at the sheer lack of sensitivity shown by examiners when it comes to the selection of the material that Latin GCSE candidates are faced with on the day.

The ancient world abounds with a plethora of stories fit for adaptation. The possibilities are endless. Given this fact, I fail to see the necessity of including stories that even prior to the #metoo era would unquestioningly be classified by all but Andrew Tate’s very worst acolytes as a story of sexual assault. The ancient world abounds with these stories too, and I am not suggesting that we should remove them from the corpus, nor that we should hide the truth of them from students who elect to study this material; it is profoundly important not only that we address these accounts but that we examine what they have to tell us about attitudes towards women and towards consent in the ancient world. But this is an examination I am talking about. Let us remember that there will be a range of students sitting each and every paper, some of whom may (or – according to the statistical reality – will) have experienced sexual assault for themselves. For some of them, the abuse will be ongoing. I’m sorry if this is upsetting news to anyone reading this, but if you work with young people and have undertaken any kind of safeguarding training then it should emphatically not be news to you that this is the case. So, to write an examination that includes a story of sexual assault is either to feign ignorance of the fact that some of our students will have suffered in this way, or is to declare that one simply does not care about the impact that the examination’s contents may have on some of our most vulnerable children, on what amounts to a very important day for them: a day on which their knowledge and hard work is being put to the test.

In an examination, a student who is already in a potentially stressful situation is forced to sit with the material in front of them and process it alone. If they are translating a passage, that means sitting with the material for some considerable period of time. It is clear that the examiners gave no thought to this and I refuse to accept that one has to be some kind of super-woke convert to the concept of trauma-informed education to raise an eyebrow at their monumentally insensitive decision to include this material. Personally, I have some concerns about the spread of trauma-informed practice into education, often pushed by advocates who know nothing about the realities of classroom teaching; I consider some of its most lethal mutations potentially harmful when it interferes with a school’s basic need to provide a robust disciplinary framework for all students to thrive within. Yet humanity and frankly common sense surely teaches us that one should think carefully about the impact that the content of our lessons may have on students, and even more so about the content of an examination that will be sat by thousands of them, on their own, without support.

During my teaching career I worked with the OCR specification, so have come to the WJEC specification in recent years as demand from tutees has increased. I am now at the point where I am looking closely at individual past papers and last week I worked through the contents of the 2020 WJEC GCSE language paper. I was frankly appalled. I have spoken to a couple of contacts who have far more influential voices in the field than I possess and they confirmed to me that they have already raised concerns in the past, to no avail.

So let’s see what everyone else thinks of the content, shall we? The first passage on the 2020 paper consists of Jupiter disguising himself in order to have his wicked way with an innocent young nymph named Callisto. So far, so typical Jupiter and perhaps euphemistic enough for most of us to be broadly okay with the story’s use. However, things do not remain euphemistic. In this particular retelling, Jupiter disguises himself as the virgin goddess Diana, a close companion of Callisto, so that he can enter Callisto’s bed, and the story continues as follows – below is my version of what the students were asked to translate; I have not quoted the Latin extensively, in case they come at me with copyright complaints, but you can view the paper freely here on their own website:

Callisto, when she saw the goddess, was happy; but as soon as Jupiter lay down next to her and gave her a kiss, Callisto realised that she was not a woman but the god. She was terrified. For she had lived her whole life just like Diana. Although she tried to escape, Jupiter held her down easily.

The passing mention that she had “lived her whole life just like Diana” may (one hopes) have gone over the head of most students, but the truth is that it is spelling it out for readers that Callisto is still a virgin. This, plus the clear implication that Jupiter forced himself upon Callisto and physically held her down, is bad enough, but the disturbing content continues:

Having entered the woods with her other companions, Diana greeted Callisto, who was again so terrified that she wanted to run away: she thought that the god was coming back for her. But after she saw the companions, she hurried towards them, crying. “Why are you crying?” they asked. “What happened?” “Nothing,” the unhappy girl replied. After a few days, however, they persuaded Callisto to tell them what had happened.

She thought that the god was coming back for her?! Who thought that line was a great one to include? The Latin is deum ad se redire putavit, a marvellous opportunity to test candidates on the indirect statement with a past tense main verb and a present tense infinitive, well done chaps! Didn’t think about what the statement actually meant, though, did you? I really do despair. (I know I shouldn’t assume that they’re all men but really … what else can one assume? That a woman thought this was okay? I do hope not).

Perhaps worst of all, in a final turn of events, Callisto’s friend and protector Diana turns on her and blames her for her own assault, as does the ever-jealous wife of Jupiter:

Callisto’s companions, shocked by such serious news, hurried to Diana to report the matter to her. Diana, who was very angry, ordered Callisto to leave at once. “You are not blameless” she said. “Do not ever return to us.” Callisto left, very unhappy. She was forced to live in the woods for many months. Meanwhile Juno was watching her. Juno was the wife of Jupiter. Although Jupiter was always trying to deceive her, Juno had found out what he had done. “That very bad nympth will pay for this” she said.

The word (glossed on the exam paper and translated as per the examiner’s instructions as) “blameless” is casta. The phrase could be translated “you are not innocent”, “you are not pure”, “you are not chaste” (our closest equivalent as a direct derivative) or indeed “you are not a virgin”.

The messaging here is clear. A girl is sexually assaulted, is deeply distressed by the assault, is terrified that it will be repeated and finally is told by others that the assault is her fault and that she is sullied goods. How on earth is it possible that this material made it past the huge number of eyes that one presumes (hopes?) get to look at it before it makes it onto the final draft of an examination paper? Did not one of them think to ask whether the content was appropriate or frankly even necessary? Was there no other single story that would have sufficed, from all of the other thousands of ancient stories that are in our possesion? One can only imagine that every single examiner involved was so blissfully ignorant as to the realities of life for some of our young people that they simply did not consider the fact that the material might be unfit for purpose. All I can say is lucky for those who live their own lives knowing so little about other peeople’s pain and distress.

In the past I have written about the content of the text book Suburani and consider some of it inappropriate for younger students, but at least in a text book the material can (and indeed should) be managed by the classroom teacher, who can skip out that section altogether should they decide – as I would – that it is simply not appropriate for their class. If they do decide to tackle the material, they can manage how this is done and provide guidance and a supportive atmosphere for students to respond to it. In an examination, students are left completely exposed, with no gatekeepers to protect them and no safety net to catch them if they end up in freefall. For me, that is simply and emphatically not acceptable and a clear betrayal of our duty of care.

Photo by Zhivko Minkov on Unsplash

Last-minute help?

This is the first of two remarkably busy weeks working with a very large number of Year 11s during their school holidays, preparing for the forthcoming GCSE examinations. Many of these students have approached me in just the last few weeks seeking help, and it is remarkable how much can be achieved in a short time prior to the final exams.

Many clients are surprised by the assurance that help can be worthwhile at this late stage. Many contact me in a state of panic or near despair, convinced that the situation is unsalvageable and unsure why they’re even asking for my advice. Yet within a few weeks it is possible to have an impact on a student’s confidence and their attainment, so long as you know what to focus on.

First and foremost, it is essential to assess the particular areas with which a student is struggling. This in itself can be a challenge, since many students (and certainly their parents) can struggle to identify where the problems lie. Students often present with nothing more than the fact that they need help with “the grammar”, so I rely largely on my own detective work to get to the bottom of what can be done to improve the situation. At a late stage of intervention this may well not mean delving into complex material, nor indeed trying to ask them to learn basic fundamentals. At this stage, it’s about identifying and selecting some concrete things to address that will gain them a win.

One thing that can be tackled head-on is their performance in the grammar questions, which make up 10% of their language mark. The examiner is remarkably repetitive and we are now in possession of enough past papers to prove this concept. Showing students every single past paper in quick succession, focusing entirely on the grammar questions and demystifying what it is that the examiner is looking for in their answer can be a real game-changer. In just one session it is usually possible to help get most students to the point where they can achieve 8 or 9 out of 10 in that section. To achieve full marks, students require a whistlestop tour of the uses of the subjunctive, which is a question the examiner has asked every single year, and that can take up another session or two. The uses of the subjunctive are another relatively easy win because most exam papers contain at least 5-10 sentences containing one of these constructions, so an understanding of how to translate those clauses gains them a significant margin.

There are further gains to be had if we have time to look at several practice papers as they can be coached on the types of phrasing that come up on a regular basis. I have identified a collection of common phrases that appear on exam papers with striking regularity, and a student who is perhaps overwhelmed with vocabulary learning can benefit from focusing their revision on these phrases. In addition, I have a list of high-frequency words that come up time and again on exam papers. Focusing on the high-frequency words will not gain a student a top grade in the exam (you need all the vocabulary for that!) but it can be a real game-changer for students who are struggling at the pass-mark.

Some students come to me for help with the literature and the majority of the time it is because they are completely overwhelmed by how to go about committing the texts to memory. I have written before on the fact that too many teachers tend to assume that students have the knowledge, experience and skills to rote-learn vast quantities of material without support, but in my experience, this really is not the case. My grades went up significantly when I started to assume that students did not have this knowledge and I taught them explicitly how to go about the process. Likewise, my grades went up when I took the risk of allowing them short bursts of class time to make a start on the process – this afforded me the opportunity to model the process and then monitor them using it. Many students are resistant to advice when it comes to study skills, so it’s important to ensure that they do give effective methodologies a chance so that they can be converted to the process. If left to their own devices, many students will ignore the suggestions made by their teachers, attempt to do it their own way and fail.

I am finding the work that I am doing immensely rewarding. Just this week I had a particularly heartening message from a client saying that her son is really seeing a difference. “He’s just said to me “ a few weeks ago I wouldn’t have had a clue and now I am getting them all right”. So grateful.” This particular student has been through exactly the process I have outlined above – I took him on a whistlestop tour of the uses of the subjunctive, we reviewed all the grammar questions on past papers and now we’re onto as many practice papers as we have time for, tackling some further easy wins such as time phrases along the way. Once the student is on board with the notion that it is never too late to turn their performance around, it’s quite remarkable what can be achieved.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Casual misogyny: Love and Marriage (WJEC/Eduqas)

I’m no expert when it comes to the Roman view of women. My specialist area was neoplatonic philosophy, so I would never lay claim to having a thorough and intimate grasp of this field, nor did I take any particular interest in feminist readings of ancient literature (indeed, I recall being specifically warned off it as a research area – by men, it may not surprise you to know). All of that said, as a trained Classicist I have read a fair number of sources that discuss women and/or their behaviour – for better or for worse. The current prescription for the WJEC/Eduqas GCSE specification includes a group of texts to which they have given the title “Love and Marriage” and I am working with a few students who are studying them.

One of the most important things to grasp as a Classicist, in my opinion, is that women were broadly considered to be inferior to men in the ancient world. I think we all need to get over that casual misogyny, if we’re not going to spend every moment of study being triggered. There is no point having a panic attack every time this inescapable fact comes back on our radar, just as there is no point in doing so when we are reminded that in the ancient world the existence of slavery was considered to be completely acceptable. What we must do, on the other hand, is address these facts head-on. Never let anyone tell you that Roman society was advanced and civilised; when compared to our own, their society was cruel and grossly unfair, and those who would seek to say so are utterly deluded. One does not have to admire something to be fascinated by it.

The first thing to note about the collection of texts selected by WJEC – and indeed, about the overwhelming majority of sources that discuss women in our possession – is that they were written by men, and (largely) for men. Hearing women’s voices is extremely difficult, although I find it disappointing that WJEC did not even try to do so. They have included some visual source material as part of the “Love and Marriage” prescription, but they did not elect to include the graffiti and politicised slogans penned by women, which would have been a nice nod towards the fact that we do, at least, have those as direct evidence of women’s opinions. What we do have in the prescription is a collection of paintings and sculptures depicting the marriage ceremony. And yes, I know the prescription is called “Love and Marriage”, but given that the rest of the sources are fundamentally about women, it wouldn’t have taken much of a stretch of the imagination to make it considerably more interesting and inclusive.

The first text in the collection pretty much encapsulates the nature of a wealthy woman’s expected ideal life in the Roman world. It is an epitaph, so necessarily idealised, and sums up the manner in which women were expected to conduct themselves and their lives:

hospes, quod dico paulum est; asta ac perlege.
hic est sepulcrum haud pulchrum pulchrae feminae:
nomen parentes nominarunt Claudiam.
suum maritum corde dilexit suo.
natos duos creavit: horum alterum
in terra linquit, alium sub terra locat.
sermone lepido, tum autem incessu commodo,
domum servavit, lanam fecit. dixi. abi

Stranger, what I have to say is brief; stand still and read it through.
Here is the not very beautiful tomb of a beautiful woman:
Her parents gave her the name Claudia.
She loved her husband with all her heart.
She bore two sons, one of which
She leaves on this earth, the other she placed beneath the earth.
Of charming conversation, and indeed of elegant step,
She looked after the home, she spun wool. I have spoken. Now go on your way.

It is surprising how hard one has to push young students to articulate how and why this epitaph is perhaps (to use modern parlance) problematic in terms of what modern women might expect for themselves, their lives and their legacy. I don’t know what the kids are into these days, but unless I am very out of touch then I am guessing that housekeeping and wool-spinning is not necessarily top of a 21st century girl’s list of ambitions (that said, crochet is apparently making a comeback). What is most notable to me about the epitaph is its coldness: Claudia’s achievements are those expected of a good wife and mother: nothing more, nothing less. She loved her husband with all her heart – there is no mention of that being reciprocated. The only personal attributes mentioned are those of the ideal desirable woman – she looked good, she conducted herself appropriately and made polite conversation. As my mother legendarily said to some considerable awkwardness at a dinner party in the 1970s, “women have been making intelligent conversation at these kinds of dinner parties for centuries, and look where it’s got us”. Indeed.

The other texts in the collection which discuss marital relations fall very simply into two categories: marriages in which the woman behaves herself in the correct manner, and marriages in which she doesn’t. Pliny’s Letter to Calpurnia Hispulla is a simply toe-curling account of his successful match with the 15-year-old Calpurnia the Younger, who is by all reports simply delighted to be married off to Pliny, who was in his mid 40s. (This, I am happy to report, does get something of a reaction from students). In addition to keeping the household in order as one might expect, Pliny reports that his young (indeed, by modern standards, child) bride is learning his speeches off by heart and even setting them to music on the lyre. We are also told that she “sits hidden behind a curtain” so she can hear him perform in front of his friends. Lord knows what this youngster truly thought of her marriage – we have some letters (not included in the prescription) from Pliny directly to her but none (of course) from her to him. Not that she wouldn’t have written them, you understand, but nobody would have considered them worth publishing or preserving for the future.

Cicero’s report of his brother Quintus’ marriage, by contrast, gives the picture of a most unsuccessful match, with the wife portrayed as a thoroughly unreasonable and difficult woman. Quintus is – of course – an absolute model of decency and Cicero is dismayed at the behaviour of his sister-in-law. Not as dismayed as Seneca, mind you, who in the text nicknamed Changing Morals makes it clear that pretty much all the women in Rome are loose and immoral, hell-bent on taking as many lovers as they can possibly fit into their day and totally lacking in any kind of decency:

num iam ulla repudio erubescit, postquam feminae quaedam illustres ac nobiles non consulum numero sed maritorum annos suos computant? …  num iam ullus adulterii pudor est, postquam eo ventum est ut nulla virum habeat nisi ut adulterum irritet? pudicitia argumentum est deformitatis. quam invenies tam miseram, tam sordidam, ut illi satis sit unum adulterorum par?

Is any woman today ashamed of divorce, now that some distinguished and noble ladies count their age, not by the number of the consuls but of their husbands? …  Is there no longer any shame in adultery, now that things have reached the point that no woman keeps a husband except to frustrate her lover? Chastity is now a sign of ugliness. What woman will you find so wretched, so undesirable, that for her a single pair of lovers is sufficient?

According to Seneca, Roman women were frankly rampant and if Catullus’s account of his lover, Lesbia, is anything to go by, then he’s not wrong. It is always worth telling students that the poems included in the selection are amongst Catullus’ tamest works, many of which would not make it onto the A level syllabus, never mind the GCSE. I’ll never forget being frankly agog at a lecture on Catullus during my first year at university – I wasn’t aware that university lecturers knew about those kinds of things or indeed used that kind of vocabulary. The very fact that Catullus’ lewd works appear to give us glimpses of undeniably empowered, liberated women in Rome only serves to make our inability to connect with their true voices all the more frustrating.

Passionate love affairs do not always run smoothly, and the WJEC collection also includes a poem by Catullus about being rejected by his lover, plus another by Horace in the same vein. They both speak of the pain of rejection and the account by Horace includes a possible reference to a desire for violent revenge upon his ex. Two extremely short poems, one by Catullus and one by Martial, both describe feelings of both love and hate for one woman and explore the idea that the poets can both love and despise their female partners at the same time.

difficilis facilis, iucundus acerbus es idem:
nec tecum possum vivere, nec sine te.

Unbearable, agreeable, you are pleasant and repulsive just the same:
I can live neither with you, nor without you.

The WJEC selections make an interesting collection, albeit with the disappointing omission of any kind of female voice. What we are left with is the male perception of women, which is without doubt of interest in itself. How men perceive women and set out to control them is the scenery that forms the backdrop to so many societies, including our own. One of the things that makes the study of the ancient world so interesting and so worthwhile is the opportunity to look at this frankly and from a position of relative progress.

The Wedding Ceremony, State Hermitage Museum, S.Petersburg

The benefits of rote-learning

A report published by a committee from the House of Lords this week says that our education system for 11- to 16-year-olds is “too focused on academic learning and written exams”, resulting in “too much learning by rote” and “not enough opportunity for pupils to pursue creative and technical subjects”. The report ultimately suggests that some students are being “stifled” by an “overloaded” curriculum.

I shall make no attempt to defend all existing curricula, not least because I am in no position to comment in depth on any subject area other than my own. I am aware that colleagues in the sciences in particular and also in the humanities have found the post-2018 curricula difficult to deliver and certainly it seems that there is a need for a reduction in the amount of material to be covered. Teachers report that there is too much information crammed into too little time in some subects, and that tweaks to the specifications in those areas would be of benefit. In my own subject, I have written before about how unwieldy the GCSE Latin curriculum is, with its burdensome requirement for students to study (which in reality means rote-learn) an enormous amount of original literature. The problem is so bad that it has put me off agreeing to take any independent students through the curriculum, since it is such an enormous (and frankly tedious) time-drain on top of their regular subjects.

All of this can remain true without arguing that there is a need for dramatic and sweeping reforms (for heavens sake please no, not again) and even more importantly without us turning against the very principle of a knowledge-rich curriculum or indeed the very concept of learning by rote.

Educationalists who rail against rote-learning do so, I think, for several reasons. Firstly, people who are disquieted by rote-learning usually associate it with an innate lack of understanding on the students’ part, as if learning by rote is inherently at odds with understanding. For these people, the concept of rote-learning immediately conjures up images of Victorian schoolchildren holding the book upside down while they “read aloud” to demonstrate to the dreaded School Board that they could read when in fact they couldn’t; instead of spending their time teaching reluctant readers how to read, some teachers purportedly made children learn a passage of literature by heart so that they could recite it when it came to inspection day. Whether these apocryphal stories are true or not is a question I should ask the inimitable Daisy Christodoulou and Elizabeth Wells, authors and presenters of the fantastic podcast Lessons from History. If you haven’t come across it yet, I recommend it highly. It is fantastic for myth-busting, demystifying and celebrating how far we have come.

I have two key criticisms of the assumption that rote-learning equates to a lack of understanding. Firstly, the two notions are not causally linked. Very obviously, one can teach to ensure understanding in addition to asking a student to learn some material off by heart. Secondly, even when a lack of understanding does remain, this does not negate the value of rote-learning; rather it does, if anything, make the process even more important. Students are capable of banking information even if they do not currently understand it; this means that they can then draw on that information at a later date. For example, students could learn a poem off by heart, which would then facilitate the process of studying it in class.

Much to my heathen husband’s chagrin, I recall all of the hymns and prayers that I absorbed in my very traditional school, which marched us to chapel every day. I remember being distinctly puzzled by the phrase “the panoply of God”. And surely anyone that hails from a similar educational experience found themselves wondering why there was “a green hill far away, without a city wall”? All of these sorts of phrases came back to me as an adult as I learnt the true meaning of them and was thus able to fit them into my existing schema of knowledge. The rote-learning did not detract from this, the information was merely sitting there waiting to be processed and filed. I do not see why there is a problem with this. While it would have been better had the concepts been demystified for me at the time, the brain’s capacity to absorb material for the longterm is so enormous that there really is no harm in it containing some bits of information that it does not yet fully understand. It’s not a floppy disc; it won’t fill up and start malfunctioning.

Another reason that some educationalists object to rote-learning is that they see it as a waste of time in this modern era of technology. What value is there in learning something off by heart when we can look things up at the touch of a button? I find this argument so facile that I struggle to argue against it with the gravitas required to refute it. Yet, I shall make an attempt to do so. First of all, rote-learning is not, in fact, excessively burdensome: quite the opposite. Rote-learning is remarkably easy to do once students are taught the right methodology. In return for a very small amount of effort, students can bank vast quantities of knowledge in their longterm memory, which then frees up their working memory to simply spectacular benefit. To take my own subject as an example, anyone who tries to grasp a complex grammar point such as the indirect statement without a rudimentary knowledge of the inflection and vocabulary being used will never manage to do so; if a student is constantly distracted by the need to check their noun or verb endings, or to look up the required vocabulary, their working memory will be over-burdened to the point of failure. Similarly, a student will struggle to understand the writer’s craft and discuss stylistic techniques (as required – for better or for worse – by the examiners) unless they understand the Latin that is in front of them; the easiest way for them to understand a complex chunk of material is for them to have rote-learned its meaning beforehand. Rote-learning a text is extremely easy once you know how and not only have I written about it before I have taught hundreds of students how to do it to great effect. The problem is not with rote-learning itself but with how few classroom teachers actively teach an appropriate methodology for rote-learning, leaving students to flounder when it comes to how to do it.

Yet it is not only the inherent benefits to academic learning that make me believe that rote-learning is a skill that students should be taught. In addition, I find it mystifying that so many educationalists fail to see the value and the joy in the process itself. Whether it be poetry or your favourite song-lyrics, the sheer joy in having a worthwhile piece of writing in your head is difficult to over-estimate. At school I learnt poems, songs, sonnets and speeches from Shakepseare and can still remember them to this day. Learning poetry by heart remains a hobby for me and I can, for example, recite the whole of The Highwayman, which takes around 13 minutes. Why? Well, why not? The process is as pleasurable and stimulating as doing a crossword, completing a Wordle puzzle or grappling with a challenging Sudoku. I regret that so many educationalists do not wish for young people to develop the ability to acquire such knowledge should they so choose. This is not to say that all of them will choose to adopt the process of learning poetry as a hobby in the way that I do, but I do not understand the determination to rob them of the option. How little we think of them that we decide on their behalf that they are not worthy of it.

The bulk of my time as a tutor is spent uncovering what it is that students don’t already know and helping them to rectify this. That goes both for the knowledge itself and for the methodology of how to acquire and sustain it. Knowledge is essential for students to thrive and I don’t think that I will ever understand the apparent desire of some to rob the next generation of their rightful inheritance.

Photo generated by AI. Spooky, isn’t it?

Why do we have Mock examinations?

Once again this year I am struck by the huge variation between schools when it comes to handling their Mock examinations. Most interesting perhaps is the variation in date, as some schools have set them in November, some in December, some in January. The timing of mocks is never ideal for anyone involved. A Mock period in November and/or December means that the examinations come rather too early, forcing teachers to cram content in or delay it until afterwards and not examine it; it also means that teachers will have the rather unpleasant Christmas gift of a whole load of exam-marking. Delay the exams until January, however, and the examinations are hanging over the students, potentially putting a strain on them and their family during the short Christmas break; it also means that the results of those Mock examinations will potentially not be circulated until February, which then leaves only three months to take action between the Mock results and the final exams.

One major problem with Mock examinations is the amount of curriculum time that is wiped out by the very process of examining a whole year group in formal conditions, a factor which led directly to the demise of the AS/A2 system at Key Stage 5 – losing most of the summer of Year 12 to an examination period was simply too costly. In Year 11, for practical reasons, the Mock examination period is kept very short (much shorter than the formal examination period in the summer), with schools cramming all of their examinations into a two-week or three-week window. This is absolutely necessary in order to minimise the disruption to the curriculum, but the price is paid by the students and by the staff, who face a very intense time sitting the exams, marking them and analysing the data – all at the darkest and most miserable time of year, when the likelihood of illness is high.

One of the main issues with Mock examinations is that they serve too many conflicting purposes. They are used by schools as an indicator as to whether a student is on target to achieve their predicted grade, and most schools ask their staff to perform some kind of results analysis, with students being flagged in some way as to whether they are on, above or below target. Sometimes this information is passed on to the students. In my experience both students and their families continue to be deeply confused about the difference between a target grade (which will be calculated using a complex algorithm and based on data that does not actually relate to your child’s own performance) and a predicted grade (which is what your teacher thinks you might achieve if you continue working as you are).

Personally, I don’t like either target grades or predictions, as I feel that they categorise children unfairly and set up a mindset that is not always helpful. Students with very high targets and/or predictions can feel overwhelmed by the pressure; students with lower ones can feel like the system doesn’t believe in them or that they have been labelled as incapable so what’s the point of trying? In an ideal world we wouldn’t need them at all. On a training course on raising standards for all, I once met a Headtacher who worked in an outstanding school with outstanding results. They gave every child the same target, which was to get as far above the pass grade as they could. I excitedly shared this radical and evidentially successful approach with my school leadership team and they roundly ignored it; ironic really, as they has sent me on the course and asked me for feedback! The approach jarred so much with what they believed was necessary that they couldn’t even entertain the notion as a way forward.

So, schools require Mock examinations in order to number-crunch and take a reading in terms of how a cohort is likely to perform that year. Like it or not, this is unlikely to stop happening when we are demanding that schools raise standards all the time and we base this judgement on exam performance. Yet there are other important reasons for the Mock examinations, and these do not always sit confortably with a school’s need to data-crunch and predict outcomes. In many schools, Mock examinations are the one and only time that students experience a practice run of what it will be like to sit their final papers in the summer. Most schools don’t have the physical space to facilitate formal examinations for all year groups, so it’s really important for Year 11 to get this one real chance at experiencing what it is like to line up as a year group according to a designated seating plan, file into the room in examination conditions (which begin outside the room) and sit a series of examinations, one after the other. Students experience what it’s like to receive formal instructions from the Examinations Officer, to be told to hand in their mobile phones and check their pockets for banned materials (pretty much everything), to have to have their equipment in an appropriate clear container and to surrender any equipment that is more modern than an analogue timepiece. All of these things can create tension for anxious students, but it is hugely important for them to experience the process so that they know what to expect in the summer. It can be a real balancing act for schools to create the right atmosphere – just the right amount of gravitas so that students experience the seriousness of the real thing, without sending the entire year group into a state of controlled (or, even worse, uncontrolled) panic.

Crucially, Mock examinations are (or should be) an opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them. Teachers expect some students to read the paper wrong, to answer the wrong section, to tackle too many questions or not enough. The very point is that they get to experience the impact of this and learn how important it is to approach each paper in the right way. Beyond that, they also get to dissect their performance in detail and (in an ideal world) receive thorough, individualised feedback from their teacher. The mock examinations should highlight areas of weakness and shine a light on the skills which need honing and improvement. When students are very upset by their performance in a Mock examination, it can be particularly difficult; students may receive news of their mark in the same lesson as when they have to go through the paper and in my experience this means that they are not in a fit state to take anything in; as a tutor, I am grateful to schools who are happy to release the papers and let students take them home, as this means I can look at the paper myself and go through it again with the student when they are calmer.

One of the things which students struggle the most with when it comes to their first experience of examinations is timing, and this is indeed one of the many reasons why Mocks are so important. There’s nothing like the full experience of being in a large exam hall and having to work to timed conditions to make you realise that this is something that you need to practise, practise and practise again. There is no point in astudent working on exam-style questions if they are not doing so in timed conditions – in fact, I would argue that doing so could potentially be damaging in the long-run; if a student gets used to tackling a question over a longer period of time, they’re going to struggle to adjust their performance to what is required in the final paper. This is why it’s important to practise things under time pressure from the very beginning.

If a student truly bombs in their Mock it is not a disaster. I have seen students turn things around in a manner that I might not have believed possible had I not seen it with my own eyes; a really poor performance in an examination can even be the catalyst that some students need to get them focused – if no amount of their teachers or their parents telling them to buck their ideas up has worked, then sometimes totally crashing down to earth with truly disastrous grade can be the ticket. For the more anxiously minded, the important thing is to convince them that Mocks are quite literally there to be failed; their job is to defy the algorithm and smash it out of the park in May. Believe me, it can be done.

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Is it really too easy?

One of the many joys of tutoring is the time and space it affords you to check out whether a student understands basic concepts. This does not only mean basic academic concepts, such as the differnce between the subject and the object; it also means looking at some of the ostensibly simplest sorts of questions on the exam papers and making sure that they know how to go about them.

Teachers of Latin GCSE are under enormous pressure to get through the syllabus content in the time they have available. Latin classes – certainly in state schools – often start from a position of disadvantage, having already had a limited number of teaching hours at Key Stage 3; some GCSE classes even start ab initio. The exam board then demands that a huge amount of complex material is covered, including a ludicrous amount of real Latin literature. The reality of this means that class minutes are at a premium, and teachers will move rapidly over basic concepts and may even assume that simple questions are understood and do not require practice. Often, as a direct result of this, key marks are lost due to small misconceptions or a lack of clarity in a student’s mind when it comes to how to approach such questions.

This week I finally got around to reading the Examiners’ Report from 2023 and their comment on the derivatives question really leapt out at me. It said, “this question is designed to be accessible to candidates of all abilities, and most scored at least 2 marks.” Personally, I find this utterly delusional on the part of the examiners. How, pray tell, is a question accessible to all candidates when it relies on a breadth of literacy and general knowledge not covered in the syllabus itself? And how is a score by many of 50% on this question indicative that it was indeed accessible? The comment is simply astonishing and I’m afraid it betrays yet again how out of touch the world of Classics is with reality. I have worked with a variety of students who have been scuppered by the derivatives question and their struggle is due to one or more of the following reasons:

  1. Students do not know their Latin vocabulary well enough to be able to access the question. You can’t come up with a viable derivative if you don’t know what the Latin word means. This is more complex than it perhaps sounds, as the word is often presented in a form that is different from the one they have learnt e.g. dabat from the verb do), meaning that candidates who find the subject challenging will probably struggle to recognise it.
  2. Students are EAL (English as an Acquired Language) and lack the breadth of English necessary to succeed in this question. They may be performing outstandingly well in the subject, but they have not yet come across the word regal or sedentary.
  3. Students do have English as their first language but are not widely read, meaning that they struggle to come up with derivatives; they might recognise one when it’s pointed out to them, but they find it difficult to reach for one. This means that students for whom reading is modelled and encouraged at home are at a huge advantage, which is one of the main reasons why the examiners’ assertion that this question is “accessible” really grinds my gears.
  4. Students have simply not been taught how to approach this question, or if they have been shown how they have not practised it at length. Teachers rarely spend a significant amount of time doing so because they assume (like the examiners do) that the question is easy. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, it may be time they do not have. In my experience to date, the best schools practise deivations from the very beginning of Key Stage 3, and this is certainly the best way to embed the knowledge for GCSE.

Some students really do have no problem with the derivatives question, and when that’s the case I leave them to it. These students are always highly literate and usually well-read. Unlike them, many students need to be shown multiple examples of derivatives and time needs to be invested in guiding them through the vocabulary list looking for such derivatives – the examiners even recommend this in their notes, yet still cling to the delusion that this question is highly accessible. Believe me, any question that cannot be done without detailed, explicit, one-to-one guidance from an expert is not accessible; teachers do not have time on the curriculum to prep for this question adequately.

Another question that many teachers lack the time to focus on and tend to assume the students will cope with just fine is the 10-marker in the literature papers. Because the question is open-ended and requires no knowledge of the Latin, this question really is accessible in the sense that even students who have struggled with the material should be able to do it; I say “should” because once again there is some guidance required. Students tend to apply what they have been taught about answering other types of questions (even in other subjects) to the 10-marker and this can lead them down the wrong path; answers need to be full of quotations/references but not to the Latin, to the text in translation. There is also no requirement for detailed analysis. I have written about this in more detail here. The 10-mark question makes up 20% of each literature exam: that means it makes up 10% of a student’s entire result – way more than the difference between two grades. It’s definitely worth spending some time on!

It’s a real joy as a tutor to be able to dive into the basics and make sure that students are well-prepared for what they face when it comes to exam time. Questions that the examiners and teachers assume are easy usually are so once you know how to approach them, but it’s that assumed knowledge that I’m interested in. Once a student has been gifted with said knowledge, that’s when they can start to fly.

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Back to Basics

One of the best things about tutoring is the time and space to go back to basics. Many students come to me with a list of tricky constructions that they are struggling with, and without question I will address those things in the time I spend with them. More often than not, however, while the student may be requesting help with the ablative absolute or the indirect statement, what I discover is that they don’t even know their basic noun endings.

Over the years I have given a great deal of thought as to why this is so. The discovery – through tutoring – of just how many students this was true for certainly informed my own practice as a classroom teacher. I came to realise that the basics must revisited time and time again before students can claim full confidence and that this was true for all students, not just those that appeared to be struggling. So tutoring completely changed my approach in the classroom, for it gave the the realisation of just how much students naturally forget over time.

Given that Latin is a subject with which most people are unversed, I like to make analogies with subjects that are familiar to all of us. Imagine a child sitting their maths GCSE and trying to cope with the complexities of algebra and trigonometry. Then imagine that same child trying to sit their maths GCSE before they have fully grasped the meaning and process of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Maybe indeed you were that child. Maybe you were pushed through your GCSE or your O level with a shaky grasp of those basics. If you were that child, you will have been frankly terrified of maths as a subject and probably still believe that you’re “rubbish at maths”, all because nobody took the time to ensure that you understood the rudimentary basics. Remember how that felt? That’s what I’m talking about.

One of the first things I always check out when I meet a new student is whether they are confident with the order and meaning of the cases. You wouldn’t believe how many Year 10 or Year 11 students I have worked with who, when asked about this, have absolutely no idea. But what is the point of them learning their noun endings if they don’t know what those endings mean? So I start with a blank table and ask students whether they can tell me which case comes first and what the meaning of that case is. (Answer: nominative, and it’s the subject of the sentence). Most students who are taking GCSE are able to tell me this (although not all). Beyond that, many – not all, but the majority – start to fall apart from there. For example, they cannot remember whether the genitive comes before or after the dative and/or they cannot remember which one means “of” and which one means “to” or “for”. Immediately, therefore, we have a fundamental clue to what the underlying problem is with their approach to any Latin sentence: basically, in reality, they are guessing.

Delving into the gaps in a student’s knowledge like this is an enormous privilege and helping them start to plug those gaps is one of the best things about my job. All of these students have been taught these concepts before but all of them have forgotten that material. This is how memory works and this is why retrieval practice and revisiting past concepts in the classroom again and again is so crucial. Most classroom teachers, it seems to me, are still underestimating the importance of this and the extent to which even the highest of achievers need regular checks on their two times table interwoven with their introduction to the finer points of matrices. But the reality is that no matter how good the classroom teacher, no matter how solid and consistent their use of retrieval practice, there will still be some students who fall by the wayside; this may be due to illness causing absences or it may just be that they find it harder than the rest of the class. And that’s where tutoring comes in.

Sometimes people assume that repetition is boring and that working with lots of students on the same set of fundamentals would also be so. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every child is different and every child that is struggling in the classroom has their own personal and private worries; often a child has an instinct for the fact that they are missing some fundamental pieces of the puzzle but their situation has become so stressful that they feel unable to ask for help. Breaking down those barriers and helping them to grasp the core concepts and knowledge that they need in order to start succeeding is without a doubt the most rewarding thing that I could spend my time doing. Parents often tell me that their increased confidence and improving performance feels like a miracle.

So if your child is struggling with complex material, that is without doubt something which needs addressing. However, it may not be the case that the complex material is where we need to start. After many years of radio silence, I have recently taken up the piano again and am trying to re-learn some complex pieces that I could rattle off without hesitation at the age of 18. What I realised when I started at the music was that I have forgotten some of the most rudimentary bits of knowledge – when there are four sharps in the treble clef, what does that mean? I honestly can’t remember. So, before I can play with confidence, I will have to revisit some of those basics. I know that they will come flooding back, but the reality is that they need to be revised. So, back to basics I go. It will be worth it in the long-run.

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What’s wrong with GCSE Latin?

Sometimes you have to step off the treadmill to reflect on what is wrong with the system. After 21 years of preparing cohorts of students for Latin at GCSE level, it has taken me a year or so off the hamster wheel to reflect upon what is wrong with it and how the examination at GCSE level is fundamentally flawed.

To understand how the Latin GCSE fails our students, we first of all need to reflect upon what the purpose is of studying Latin – without this, the decisions made by the exam boards will seem even more incomprehensible than they actually are. First and foremost, forgetting any wild claims to promote excellence, increase vocabulary or whatever else we tell ourselves about our subject, the purpose of studying Latin is to train students to be able to read real Roman texts. This is the end goal and everything else is broadly irrelevant. This inescapable reality is – I believe – why both exam boards and QCA are so irrevocably wedded to the notion that students must study a substantial proportion of “real” Latin texts in order to gain a basic qualification in the subject.

Let us reflect for a moment on what this actually means. Unless a child has attended prep school and studied Latin from Year 5 or 6 onwards, students will have started Latin as a beginners’ subject in Year 7 and will be unlikely to have had more than one hour’s tuition per week in the subject. This may increase margially in Years 8-9, but not by much. Within that space of time, the exam boards are expecting a student entering Year 10 to be prepared to study real Latin texts, a frankly laughable notion. Imagine expecting a student of French to read and understand Voltaire or Maupassant during their GCSE course, when they are still wrestling with the fundamentals of the language.

The argument is often trotted out that modern language students have more to contend with, because they have to work on a wider variety of skills: Latin – being a dead language – does not require students to be tested on speaking or listening. Agreed, these skills take up a huge amount of teaching time for modern linguists that we do not have to dedicate when it comes to an ancient language. Believe me, however, this is more than made up for by the linguistic content required. My first Head of Department once quipped, when I mentioned to him that one of my Year 10 students had suddenly asked when we would learn to tell the time in Latin, that I should have replied “when you have learnt the pluperfect passive subjunctive.” He had a point. (He was right, by the way: the pluperfect passive subjunctive is required at GCSE). Rod, who had only ever taught French and German, had seen the list of grammatical constructions required for GCSE Latin and it never failed to astonish him.

Now that I am on the outside of the school system, working with a large number of GCSE candidates from a variety of schools, I am being exposed to a broad range of approaches from each school. Most of them do what I did and plough through as much of the GCSE language content as they can during the first two terms of Year 10, then start tackling the literature texts in the final term of Year 10 and throughout Year 11. This is the best we can do. I have come across one school that takes longer over the language then expects students to have gained enough linguistic knowledge to tackle the set texts very quickly due to their broader knowledge-base; this is frankly nonsense, given that the language required for the texts goes way, way beyond that required at GCSE for the language paper. Some schools start the texts immediately and encourage students to work on them from the very beginning, but this is rare.

For the unintiated, let us be clear: GCSE candidates do not have anything like the linguistic knowledge required to study the real Latin texts that are prescribed for the GCSE. The only way they can cope with and even borderline understand the texts is to learn the English translation off by heart, a simply mammoth rote-learning task. This is what I spend much of my time supporting students with as many are not given the tools and the skill-set to do this on their own.

This year I had something of an epiphany when working with a handful of independent students. Why do we do it? The requirements for Latin GCSE are so unrealistic that I would go so far as to say that the qualification is wildly inappropriate. My belief that this is the case means that I no longer encourage students to take the qualification as a supplementary subject: it simply is way too much to cope with on top of their regular studies. I do not say this lightly, not least because it will mean I miss out on a significant amount of potential tutoring work. But the truth must be told, and parents of students who have a desire to study Latin independently need to think very long and hard about the reality of what that means and whether they are prepared for the sheer slog that it will entail.

So long as the texts required for GCSE go far beyond the students’ linguistic skills, the only way to prepare for the examination will continue to be to learn the texts off by heart. I shudder to think the number of wasted hours that has been spent on this. One of my skills as a tutor is in helping students with this process, because there are indeed ways in which it can be made less arduous and more manageable. I shall continue to do this, to assist students in their quest to attain top marks in the qualification for which they have been entered. But really – what are we doing it for? Is it really the best way to prepare students for a future in the subject? I do wish QCA and the examination boards would take a long, hard and realisitc look at what they are demanding from 16-year-olds and face up to the reality that their examination in its current form is not really fit for purpose.

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