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.