The use of the historic present in Sagae Thessalae and Pythius: OCR GCSE set texts

This week’s post is inspired by a random question which was sent to me via WhatsApp by a student:

Hi! I’m doing my Latin GCSE next week, and I was wondering … how to recognize the historic present, as I’ve tried to simply learn the words in Sagae Thessalae however thats not quite working and I was wondering if there were any specific sign posts to signify that it is the use of the historic present. Thank you!!

Students do find historic presents hard to spot and I believe there are a variety of reasons for this. Firstly, something we Latin teachers perhaps fail to address is that students are specifically taught by their English teachers that a change of tense is a very bad thing. They get marked down for it. In the ancient world, by contrast, a switch in tense was considered fine writing and done for deliberate effect; I do wonder whether the modern view that it is poor writing inhibits our students in their ability to respond to it.

A technical reason students find it hard is that most of them are not taught morphology in detail. Certainly I did not have the teaching time to enlighten students as to the details of all five conjugations and how their stems change, so students’ ability to spot the difference between a present tense of a 3rd or mixed conjugation verb and its perfect tense, and indeed the difference between a present tense verb and the future tense of the 3rd, 4th and mixed conjugations will probably be hazy.

One possible approach is to scrupulously translate historic presents in the present tense, but given our modern disquiet with switching tenses this can end up spoiling the narrative as a whole in translation. Another solution is to mark them up in the text, and the version of Sagae Thessalae which I have borrowed and adapted from the inimitable Mark Wilmore does exactly that – all historic presents are marked with an asterisk.

It is important for students to bear in mind that not every present tense verb will be in the historic present. A historic present is defined as a change into the present tense when the narrative is taking place in the past. As a general rule, therefore, direct speech doesn’t count, as the present tense is probably simply a report of exactly what was said. Nor does it count if the entire narrative is written in the present tense, although of course if an author decides to write an entire narrative in the present, then that in itself is done for effect. But what you’re looking out for for the historic present is a sudden switch into the present tense within a past-tense narrative. This is done deliberately to make the scene vivid.

Given the imminence of the literature examinations and the fact that this student who contacted me is probably not the only one struggling with this, I have decided to do a quick sweep of the main set texts and point out the historic presents in them. This week I am looking at the prose, which is being examined on May 26th – I will look at the verse texts next week and the week after.

Examples of the historic present in Pythius

Most of Pythius is written in the past tense, but a series of historic present tense verbs towards the end highlight Canius’s bewilderment and panic as he realises he’s been conned: invitat Canius postridie familiares suos. venit ipse mature. cumbam nullam videt. quaerit a proximo vicino num feriae piscatoram essent: on the next day, Canius invites his close friends; he himself comes over early; he seems not one fishing boat; he asks his nextdoor neighbour whether it was a fishermen’s holiday. Note that three of the verbs are promoted also, which further strengthens the vivid effect.

Examples of the historic present in Sagae Thessalae

Sagae Thessalae is peppered with verbs in the historic present; below is a summary of them:

  1. medio in foro senem conspicio: I catch sight of an old man in the middle of the forum.
  2. animum meum commasculo: I strengthen my spirit. Actually the verb means something like “make manly” – Thelyphron actually tells himself to “man up”.
  3. et statim me perducit ad domum quandam: he leads me at once to a certain house. perducit is also a compound verb – the preposition per glued onto the front of it also makes the action more vivid.
  4. ubi demonstrat matronam flebilem: where he points out a weeping woman.
  5. mustela terga vertit et a cubiculo protinus exit: the weasel turns its back and goes out of the bedroom immediately.
  6. somnus tam profundus me repente demergit: a sleep so deep suddenly overwhelms me.
  7. cadaver accuro: I run over to the corpse.
  8. omnia diligenter inspicio: nihil deest: I carefully inspect everything: nothing is missing.
  9. ecce! uxor misera flens introrumpit: look! The wretched wife burst bursts in, weeping. Here you could talk about the emphatic interjection ecce! as well as the historic present verb.
  10. reddit sine mora praemium: she hands over my reward without delay. Here you could mention the fact that the verb is promoted as well as in the historic present.
  11. immitto me turbae: I push my way into the crowd. Here again you could mention the fact that the verb is promoted as well as in the historic present.
  12. et surgit cadaver et profatur: and the corpse rises up [and] speaks out. The use of polysyndeton (repeated conjunctions/connectives) further dramatises these historic presents.
  13. respondet ille de lectulo et … populum sic adloquitur: he responds thus from the bier and addresses the people in this way. The first of these two historic presents is promoted also.
  14. igitur ignarus exsurgit … ianuam adit: therefore he unwillingly gets up … [and] goes to the door.
  15. sagae ceram ei applicant nasumque …. comparant: the witches attach wax to him and fit on a nose.
  16. temptare formam incipio. manu nasum prehendo: sequitur; aures pertracto: deruunt: I begin to examine my appearance. With my hand I grasp my nose: it comes off. I touch my ears. They fall off. Here you could talk about the tightly-packed sequence of historic presents. I would also mention the literal meaning of sequitur – his nose “follows” his hand as he takes it away from his face.
  17. et dum turba … me denotateffugio: and while the crowd identifies me … I make my escape. Mention also that denotat is a compound verb.

OCR Latin GCSE language – exam technique

GCSE candidates for 2023 are facing their first exam on Tueday May 16th. I have written recently on specific aspects of the paper, in particular the grammar questions and the derivatives question, but this is a generalised post about how to approach the examinantion as a whole.

The Latin language paper is one of the few examinations in which most students will not be under time pressure. Obviously there are always exceptions, and I have had some students who are exceptionally cautious or methodical in their approach find themselves run out of time – but this is very rare. Most students finish the paper early and many finish it within around half the time that is allocated to them. This can lull students into a false sense of security, and there have been few experiences more frustrating in my time than watching students close their paper and choose to spend their remaining time sparing into space. Examiners are not stupid, and the time allocated to candidates is done so for a reason. There is a great deal of time allocated to the language paper because a high degree of accuracy is demanded in order for students to perform exceptionally well.

So what should candidates be doing with all of the spare time that they will – as a general rule – have on their hands? Here are my key bits of advice.

  1. First priority is to go back to the start of the examination and check the bits of the paper that you found easy and did quickly, which is most likely to be the simple comprehension questions in Section A. This is where you are most likely to spot minor errors. Use the time to check your work and look for minor slips such as translating a singular as a plural or vice versa – these kids of errors will lose you marks that you are perfectly capable of scoring.
  2. Return to the derivatives question. This question asks you to define the derivative as well as to give one. Check whether you have chosen the best possible example of a derivative, by which I mean whether have selected one that you can define. For example, in the specimen paper the examiner asks for a derivative from the word credo (I trust or believe) and almost all students immediately plump for credit, which is actually really tough to define in relation to the meaning of the original Latin word; much better to select credible, which defines as believable, or incredible, which you can define as unbelievable. Using the spare time that you have to think of a better derivative could win you an extra 2-4%.
  3. Check your grammar questions. Some of them have more than one possible answer, so check that you have chosen the most solid answer that you are definitely sure of. Check and double check that you have answered all parts of each question as accurately as you can.
  4. Check your answers to the comprehension in Section B and return to the parts of the translation in Section B that you got stuck on and give it a little more thought. Staring at a sentence you find difficult and don’t understand may be a waste of time and may cause you stress, so don’t stare at it for longer than a couple of minutes. If you’re really stuck that’s okay – the exam is designed to really test you and you can still score a top grade without understanding every line.
  5. Finally, if you have checked and double checked everything in the examination and are 100% sure that you have done your most accurate best, now is the time to consider answering the alternative optional question. Most students choose (or have been trained) to do the grammar questions and miss out the English into Latin. If you have spare time following all your checks there is no reason why you cannot answer the English to Latin questions as well: the examiner will mark both options and you will be awarded with whichever gains the highest mark. Remember, however, that this is the very last thing that you should do when you literally have nothing else to check, as it is always a potential waste of your time – you can’t be credited with marks for both options!

Always remember that a few marks here or there can make the ultimate difference between one grade and another. It’s a myth that examiners pool together the papers and re-examine those that are very close to the boundary – teachers do this during the mocks and did this during the pandemic. Examiners do not. It is a purely mathematical game of number-crunching and if you come out just one mark below the grade boundary then that’s how it is. So trawl through you answers and celebrate any mistakes that you find – it could just make the difference in the end.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash


It was the year 2000, I was an NQT and I was standing in front of a class, teaching a subject I had not trained in, perhaps rather less well-prepared than I should have been.

The class were reading The Turn of the Screw, a novella I felt reasonably confident I could bluff my way through for half an hour, but the inevitable happened – I was presented with a word I had never seen before. The governess in the novel was describing how much the children in her care were absorbed in their imaginary games and how they would assign to her a role in their game that was befitting of her position – “a happy and highly distinguished sinecure.” I had never seen the word sinecure before.

Given my knowledge of Latin, alongside the context of the passage, I was able to deduce that sinecure meant something that required little effort: sine in Latin means “without” and cura means “effort, care or worry”. This is just one of a thousand ways that a knowledge of Latin can help widen your scope as a reader – it can help you to deduce the meaning of a word you have never met before.

Most students find derivatives much more difficult than adults imagine, and this is something I have only come to realise in recent years. The derivatives question in the OCR GCSE language paper is worth 4 marks – that’s 4% of the whole paper – yet most classroom teachers (and I include myself in this) have not prepared students well for it. It is easy to assume that students will be able to do the question without any support or guidance, but in my experience the marks that students score in this element of the paper do not bear out this assumption.

I’ll be honest – I don’t like the derivatives question and I don’t think it should be there in its current form. The question significantly advantages students who have read more widely, students who like and respond well to reading and who have been exposed to a lot of challenging books from a young age. Yet even they sometimes struggle with the question unless they are prepared for it.

The GCSE question in its current form looks like this: students are asked to state an English word which derives from the Latin and to define the English word. It is the latter that even strong readers can struggle with, given that parts of speech are no longer something which their English teachers will be making much reference to. Asking students of 16 years to give a dictionary definition of a word is a fair bit more challenging than one might assume. The question always gives an example to show students what to do, but they still need to practise it.

I used the above example this week with a very intelligent and very well-read student. His mother is an English teacher. He could not come up with a derivative for annos – fascinatingly, he came up with annular, a word which I had never heard of, but which derives in fact from the Latin for ring (anulus, also spelled annulus, meaning “small ring”). The word therefore means “ring-shaped” and I believe that he knew the word because he does astronomy! He could not think of the word annual and only recognised it when I gave him examples of it in compound words such as biannual. The second word in the question gave him no problem and he confidently both named and defined sedentary; but in my experience this is very unusual for a 16-year old, as most of them have not heard of this word and are more likely (if they can come up with anything at all) to draw on their studies in geography or chemistry and come up with sediment.

Common Entrance papers in the past have taken a slightly different approach to derivatives questions. They used to say something like “explain the connection beteeen the Latin word sedebat and the English word sedentary“. This at least gave students the derivative rather than expecting them to come up with it, but it still advantaged strong and/or experienced readers because they were still going to struggle if they had no experience of the English word.

In terms of how students can get better at this question, I’m afraid I feel a little dismal about it because “read more widely” is advice that they need to have been given from an age when really responsibility lies not with them but with their parents or guardians. The extent to which children struggle with this question is just one tiny example of how important reading is and how much advantage it gives to those whose parents have had the money, the time and the education to promote its importance at home.

I certainly recommend to all GCSE students that they get hold of a copy of Caroline K. Mackenzie’s GCSE Latin Etymological Lexicon. The book works through the whole of the GCSE vocabulary list and explores suggested derivatives for each word, so it is definitely worthwhile as a supplement volume for students who want to gain mastery in this part of the exam.

One thing I would recommend from experience is that students come back to the derivatives question during the spare time that almost all of them have at the end of the language paper. Many students plump for a poor choice of derivative, my favourite example of which is when shown a Latin word such as audivit (he heard) and asked to give a derivative, nine times out of ten they will say “audio”. Now, audio is in the English dictionary. But can they define it? Of course they can’t. Much better to give the matter some more thought and come up with audition, audience or audible, all of which are likely to be words that they know and can define.

It’s never too late when it comes to the grammar questions

Have I mentioned that this month is busy? For a few days it seemed like every time I picked up my smartphone there was a new message from an anxious parent seeking last-minute support for their child. GCSE Latin may be somewhat niche, but it is still sat by thousands of students across the UK every year, and many of them are feeling uprepared.

Last week I wrote about how many of the students that have approached me are woefully ill-informed about how to go about the process of learning their set text. We are rapidly hurtling towards a time when fixing this within the available time-frame will be a real challenge. Despite this, some students who have approached me for help only recently are rising to it; but their lives could have been made so much less stressful had they been taught these techniques in the first place and tested on the text regularly.

In the last week, however, I have been approached by students presenting with concerns across the whole specification. While at this stage it is not realistic to promise a dramatic turnaround, there are things that can be done to improve a student’s grade at this late stage. Many students present with concerns about the language paper, quoting a grade 3/4 in this element and a grade 7 in the literature. They express surprise when I tell them that more work on the literature might actually help them the most. At this stage, improving a child’s grade is little more than a numbers game. For example, if I can teach them some techniques which will help them to gain full marks in the 10-mark question (which is worth 20% of their literature grade and therefore 10% of their mark overall) I can make a difference. Students who know the text well should be able to achieve a grade 8/9 in the literature papers, which will pull up their overall result, even without any improvement in their language grade.

So is there anything that can be done at this late stage to improve a child’s performance in the language paper? Well, with five weeks to go, there is little to be gained by delving in and analysing how much basic grammar is missing from a student’s knowledge bank – that can’t be fixed in five weeks, especially given the plethora of other subjects that students are studying at GCSE: it’s not like they can dedicate the majority of time to their Latin. More realitically I can focus on one element of the examination and improve their performance in that. The easiest win is the grammar questions, worth 10% and gloriously predicatable.

I teach students a series of rules and show them dozens of past and practice papers one after the other, focusing entirely on this question; as a result, students are able to identify how predicatable the examiner tends to be and at this stage that can really help. It also empowers them by enabling them to understand the language used in the questions and to identify what it is that the examiner is looking for.

Most students, in my experience, have not been prepared well for this question and there’s a reason for that. Grammar questions are a relatively new thing at GCSE level. They were introduced to the syllabus in 2018 and most teachers saw them as an entirely new phenomenon. But grammar questions have been a feature of the Common Entrance syllabus for decades and guess what? Some of the same people involved in setting those are also involved at GCSE. If anything, the GCSE questions are easier – I would place them at between Level 1 and Level 2 at Common Entrance – Level 3 grammar questions go way beyond the expectations at GCSE. As someone who has tutored the Common Entrance for years, the “new” grammar questions introduced in 2018 looked entirely familiar to me and I was immediately able to predict how they would work. In addition, Taylor & Cullen have published a series of practice papers in their books that accompany the OCR GCSE, as well as further practice with the grammar questions. Teachers now have a minimum of 10 practice, specimen and past papers to model for them how the questions work – and they are consistently repetitive.

The best way to prepare students for this element of the examination is to show them as many examples as you can in quick succession – select just this part of each paper and do one after the other. That way, students are able to spot how certain words, phrases and expectations are repeated time and time again. I usually find that within two half-hour sessions I can take a child from one who was previously mystified as to what to do and guessing wildly to one who is able to score 8, 9 or – on a good day with the wind behind them – 10 out of 10 consistently on the grammar questions.

Missing the mark

This week I’ve been pondering the fact that we teachers don’t always make the best markers. I mentioned this in passing to a Year 11 tutee a couple of days ago and he expressed such incredulity that I decided to unpick my thoughts a little. Why do teachers struggle to mark accurately and disapassionately?

First of all, marking is incredibly difficult. Even shorter-answer questions take an enormous amount of concentration and classroom teachers are under intolerable time-pressure most of the time. Marking is rarely something that teachers enjoy and prioritise (I’ve met the odd bizarre teacher who claims to “love” marking but if I’m honest I always assumed they were pretending). Longer-answer questions require even greater concentration (English teachers, I feel your pain) and they also require training; if a teacher has not acted as a professional marker and/or attended a training course run by the examining body which addresses those questions and the mark scheme in detail, they may be making false assumptions about how those question will be assessed.

Secondly, teachers develop their marking as a professional tool to aid the teaching process, not as an end goal in itself. When I was training “assessment for learning” – something which its pioneers, Black and Wiliam, now say they wished they had called “responsive teaching” – was the new focus in education, and to a large extent it still dominates. Responsive teaching (I shall call it by its preferred name) requires teachers to mark in a manner that informs their planning – in other words, teachers should base their next lesson on the information that has arisen out of the last time they looked at their students’ work. From the outset, both Black and Wiliam campaigned for teachers to mark in a manner that reduced their workload – I heard Professor Black deliver a session at The Latymer School where I used to work, and he was without a doubt the first educationalist to stand up and tell me to spend less time marking. Black and Wiliam’s vision was that teachers should mark in a smarter way that genuinely informed their teaching – all outstanding advice.

What it means, however, is that teachers are trained to use marking as a diagnostic tool. Every time we mark, we are acquiring and encoding information about how that student is doing and – let’s be frank – whether they are following instructions and/or approaching their learning as we have taught them to. This all feeds into our overall impression of how a student is performing and will shape our next approaches. This is of course jolly difficult in the mainstream classroom, where a class of 30 may present a myriad of responses to what they have been taught so far. Happily, schools are learning to adapt more effectively to this, with leading proponents of whole-class feedback such as Daisy Christodoulou, the brains behind the “no more marking” campaign, driving schools towards a more effective way to share feedback to larger groups. Schools who have not fully adapted in this direction (mine was one of them) are overloading teachers with unnecessary work, since all the research points towards whole-class feedback as by far the most effective use of teachers’ time. Asking teachers to write individual, personalised feedback to every student in a large class is insane and remains one of the things that drives people out of the profession.

So let us come back to the original comment which so surprised my tutee, which was the suggestion that teachers don’t always make the best markers. I told him that I worked as part of a group of 6 professional markers who were assigned the A level literature components a few years ago. Most of us were working classroom teachers, but one member of the group was a subject expert but not a teacher. If I’m honest I was surprised she was there and expected her to struggle with the process. How wrong I was. In fact, she rapidly became the best out of all of us. You see, she was arriving without all the baggage. We teachers look at a script and immediately start thinking about the individual that wrote it. How if only they had done this or that then their answer would have been better. I found it hard not to feel frustrated by the ones who had clearly not learnt the text – again, a symptom of years at the chalkface. I rejoiced for the ones who had excelled. I ached for the ones who had misunderstood the question. But the non-teaching subject expert had no emotional baggage to bring to the table, no classroom-weary experience of working with a myriad of teenagers, who can be frustrating at the best of times; she approached the process entirely disapassionately. Teachers tend to pick up a script and think “how can I help this student to improve?”, or sometimes – let’s be honest – “what on earth are they doing?!”. Examiners must pick up a script and think nothing other than “where precisely does this response fit in the mark scheme?” That’s actually incredibly difficult to do if your brain is used to marking for the classroom – marking for the purpose of helping students to develop and improve.

One of the things we had to develop as part of the examining process was the ability to judge when an answer had hit the threshold for full marks. The teachers in the group took far longer to understand this than the non-teacher. This – I believe – is because we were so used to looking for reasons and ideas to help the students in front of us. The schools I have worked in were all obsessed with “even better if” comments – what tweaks could even the most outstanding of students make to their answer in order to make it better? Much as I applaud the notion that there is always room for improvement, this was sometimes exhausting and at times felt cruel. Sometimes I blatantly ignored school policy and said “you know what? This was perfect. Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. Keep up the brilliant work.” Sometimes students need to hear that. But marking for the exam board isn’t about perfection – marking for the exam board will require you to give full marks to an answer that is decidely less than perfect. The exam board does not require perfection – it requires students to show their knowledge in a way that fits the mark scheme (and yes, it is a somewhat mechanical and artificial process). Giving full marks to an answer that could be improved was something that the teachers in the group – myself included – had to be trained into doing; it still felt weird every time we did it.

Exam boards are struggling more and more to recruit markers, a symptom of the fact that teachers are already under intolerable strain much of the time as well as an indicator of just how appalling the rates of pay are. I have always advocated that working as a professional marker is excellent CPD and that teachers should mark for the board they teach to if they can; however, I completely understand why so many of them simply cannot find the time or the energy to do so.

Photo by Mauro Gigli on Unsplash

The first-letter technique

Yesterday I was reminded during one of my sessions that revisiting the best ideas and the best advice is important.

In today’s blog post I want to share the best and most effective methodology of learning a piece of text off by heart. The method is one used by many actors to learn their lines, and is certainly one that can be used if you or your child takes on a large part on stage. I teach the same method to my tutees as a means of learning the translation of their Latin set texts off by heart, the purpose of which is to make the literature element of the examination super-easy.

Let us take for example the first few lines of Sagae Thessalae, the most commonly-studied prose set text for the current OCR specification for GCSE Latin. Below is the first section of the Latin text, with a suggested translation underneath. It is the translation that your child will need to learn off by heart (not the Latin – that really would be a nightmare!)

iuvenis ego Mileto profectus ad spectaculum Olympicum,  cumhaec etiam loca provinciae clarae visitare cuperem,peragrata tota Thessalia Larissam perveni. ac dum urbem pererrans tenuato viatico paupertati meae fomenta quaero.

“As a young man I set out from Miletus for the Olympic Games, since I also wanted to visit these areas of the famous province. Having travelled through the whole of Thessaly, I arrived at Larissa.  And while wandering through the city, with my travelling allowance diminished, I was looking for remedies for my poverty.”

To go about learning a section like this, the best thing to do is to break it up into sections and learn it using the first-letter technique. The passage breaks up quite nicely into five short chunks as follows:

As a young man I set out from Miletus for the Olympic Games, 

since I also wanted to visit these areas of the famous province.

Having travelled through the whole of Thessaly, I arrived at Larissa. 

And while wandering through the city, with my travelling allowance diminished,

I was looking for remedies for my poverty.

Below is a representation of the first-letter technique for these lines. A student writes down the first letter of each word, spaced out in short chunks. Notice that I have used the punctuation – making use of capital letters, commas and full-stops acts as a further trigger for the memory:

While most people will struggle to learn these five sections of prose off by heart, the use of chunking combined with the first-letter technique enables most people to do so within a couple of minutes. Once a student has written out the first chunk in first letters, they should find that they are immediately able to recite the first chunk merely by looking at the letters. They should then repeat the process with the remaining chunks, then try to recite the whole thing, using the letters as a prompt. Within a couple of minutes, their ability to recall the entire passage will be notable. Students can then go on to repeat the process with the remaining text – not too much at once though!

Once a student has mastered the translation of a reasonable amount of text, that’s the time to turn to the Quizlet flashcards. It’s important not to wait too long to do this, as the rote-learning of the English translation will not be much use to a candidate without at least some grasp of how it relates to the Latin. A child who has learnt the translation off by heart should be able to use the flashcards to prompt themselves on each section as follows:

You will notice that I have divided the flashcards into smaller chunks – this is to assist the student in recognising which Latin words and phrases map onto which sections of the translation. There will be some hesitation as a student learns to map their rote-learned translation onto the Latin as represented on the flashcards – but that’s fine. Remember, the rote-learning is merely a prop to assist them in coping with the set text in an examination. It’s very important to move onto the flashcards swiftly, in order to begin the process of making the rote-learned translation do its job of supporting the student in recognising the Latin text.

A student should repeat the flashcards in chronological order until they are fully confident with the translation for each. Once confidence has been gained, it’s then time to hit the shuffle button and see if they can recognise and translate small chunks in isolation – that’s when they can really prove to themselves that they are recognising individual Latin words and phrases and can render them into English.

The whole process might seem arduous when a student first begins, but I have yet to find a student that is not converted to the the system once they realise how effective it is and how much power it gives them over the text. Knowing the text thoroughly is 80% of the battle – and I mean that sincerely. A student should be able to score a pretty good grade in the literature element of the examination simply on the basis of knowing the text really well; many of the questions are comprehension and ask for nothing more than for the student to explain what the text means. Once a student has gained mastery with a section of the text and can perform well on basic comprehension questions, then time can be spent on fine-tuning their response to the text and training them in how to answer the more complex questions, something which I have addressed in other posts.

Don’t mock the afflicted

Something which has struck me this year is the huge variation between schools when it comes to handling their mock examinations. Some schools have set them in November, some in December, some in January. Some schools have provided infinite details and guidance as to what the examinations will contain, some have not. Some of my tutees didn’t even know how many examinations they were due to have in each subject and on which topics, although I am hyper-aware that teenagers are not always the most reliable of sources! It is always interesting to ponder just how accurate a reflection of reality I am receiving from the outside …

Mock examinations are important to schools for a number of reasons. As a general rule, they are considered to be an indicator as to whether a student is on target to achieve their predicted grade, although the jury is still very much out on the accuracy of this process. Most schools put their staff through an agony of results analysis, with students being flagged or colour-coded as to whether they are on, above or below target. Sometimes this coding is even passed on to the students. I have heard of schools that hand out the results on colour-coded paper: green for on/above target, amber for close to but below target, red for well below. Apparently it can make for some very interesting reactions, when students who might otherwise have been pleased or distressed at their results were shown them in the context of how they were performing against their targets.

Personally, I don’t like target grades, as I feel that they categorise children unfairly and set up a mindset that is not always helpful. Students with very high targets can feel overwhelmed by the pressure, students with lower ones can feel like the system doesn’t believe in them. So in my eutopia we wouldn’t have them at all. I once met a Headtacher who worked in an outstanding school with outstanding results. They gave every child the same target – to get as far above the pass grade as they could.

One disadvantage of mock examinations is the amount of curriculum time that is eaten up by the very process of examining, 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 considered simply too costly. In Year 11, however, the mock examination period is mercifully short, with most schools cramming all of their examinations into a two-week or three-week window. The price is paid by the students and by the staff, who face a very intense time during that period.

But, despite the gruelling nature of the winter exam-sprint, mock examinations are truly essential for Year 11 students. In many schools this is 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; many 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 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 the above can create tension for 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.

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 working on exam-style questions if you 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.

But mock examinations are more than just an opportunity to experience “the real thing”. They 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 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.

So what of the worst case scenario? A student totally bombs in the mocks? Well, even that’s 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 real stinker of a 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.

So do not despair. We have around six months until the final examinations in the summer. That’s more than a quarter of the curriculum time remaining. Time to re-group and time to focus. Success may be closer than you think.

WJEC or OCR GCSE specifications?

As a career-long devotee of the OCR specification, for various reasons it is time for me to get to grips with the Eduqas (WJEC) specification. I am aware that my successor at the large comprehensive I used to work in is going to switch to WJEC and given that A level Latin is no longer available in our area (unless you go private) I fully support his decision and would have taken it myself. For my own part I’d like to be able to offer support to students taking both specifications, plus a home-schooled boy I am working with now will – I believe – respond much better to the WJEC course.

Given my need to concentrate on the finer details of the differences between a specification that is new to me and one which I know like the back of my hand, I decided to focus my mind by writing up my findings in a blog post. There’s nothing like having to explain something in your own words to make one concentrate. This is, by the way, a recognised truth when it comes to learning: simply reading something or even taking notes from a source is unlikely to aid your understanding. Putting your source to one side and then trying to explain it in your own words has been proven to be a much more powerful way to ensure that you will remember what you are studying. This is because our memory is reconstructive rather than reproductive; memory works (and therefore improves) by continuously regenerating what it remembers, so forcing yourself to reproduce in your own words something you’ve read about is a challenging but effective way to ensure that your newfound knowledge will stick.

So, here are my findings. If you’re interested in the full range of qualifications available in all Classical subjects at all levels in the UK, Steven Hunt provides a really useful overview in a 2020 article for the CUCD, which is publicly available. He discusses the specifications available for A level, the IB and beyond.

General overview

A GCSE qualification in Latin and accredited by OfQual for use in English state schools is offered by OCR and by Eduqas, which is the examining body of WJEC accredited for use in England. AQA used to offer a GCSE in Latin but this was discontinued before the new GCSEs were launched in 2018. Both OCR and WJEC have shared criteria, which are dictated to them by OfQual: the number of examination papers (three) and the length of those papers, the minimum length of the literature that must be studied in the original Latin (around 200 lines), plus a choice between an element of prose composition or questions on grammar and syntax. There is no coursework or controlled assessment and the examination must be linear, not modular – in other words, it must be sat as a series of final examinations at the end of the course. Despite these prescriptions, the two examination boards still provide some considerable variation, which I examine below.

Compulsory language paper

The language paper, compulsory in both specifications, lasts for an hour and a half and makes up 50% of both qualfications. Both specifications have a set vocabulary list and both of them state that students will be tested through translation and comprehension, plus a choice between some grammar questiona and some short prose-composition sentences (for which there is a restricted vocabulary list and a restricted grammar list). Both boards test students’ knowledge of the accidence and syntax laid out in their specifications and this is where the differences lie: the demands placed on students by the WJEC language specification are notably lighter than those expected by OCR.

Both specifications call for a knowledge of all five declensions – in reality, this means a focus on declensions 1-3, as the words from the defined vocabulary list in the 4th and 5th declension are vanishingly few. Similarly, both specifications expect a knowledge of all forms of adjectives, including their comparatives and superlatives. However, there is considerable difference between the two boards when it comes to a knowledge of verbs and all their derivative forms: OCR theoretically demands the indicative forms of regular and deponent verbs in all voices and tenses except for the future perfect; in the subjunctive it requires the impefect and the pluperfect. WJEC, when it comes to the passive voice and deponents, demands only the present, imperfect and perfect passive and deponent verbs in the 3rd person indicative! I had to read this several times to make sure I was reading it right. So, no pluperfect passive and no passives of any kind in the subjunctive and they will only need to recognise passive and deponent verbs in the 3rd person. When it comes to the syntax, the basic uses of the subjunctive seem to be identical with the expectations of OCR.

Participles? OCR expect the lot, whereas WJEC do not list the future participle as an expectation. They also state – and brace yourself here, if you’re an advocate of the OCR syllabus – that the ablative absolute is not required. I am still reeling from this. No ablative absolute. I mean … wow. It goes on. Another shock came when I realised that WJEC only expect students to recognise the present active infinitive – no others. This means that their testing of the indirect statement will be very basic and the relevant rules for the sequence of tenses will be very easy to teach.

Other smaller differences in the expectations for the language paper remain, such as WJEC does not include malo in its list of irregular verbs, unlike OCR. Likewise, the verbs sum and possum are only required in the present and imperfect indicative, present infinitive and imperfect subjunctive for WJEC. These differences may seem minor but in reality it means that there is a massive stack of knowledge not required by WJEC. The fact that students end up with the same qualification does give me pause, and were I teaching with the aim of preparing students for A level then I would stick with OCR. However, with the removal of A level as an option in my local area then my successor’s decision to switch to WJEC is entirely correct: it would almost be madness to do otherwise.

Literature and culture: with options:

The boards differ further in the way they lay out their literature and culture papers. For OCR, candidates must be prepared for two out of the following three options, each worth 25%: prose set text, verse set text or Roman literature and culture in translation. This means that all candidates must study one text of around 200 lines in the original language, and many will study two. Personally, I always taught both set texts as I hated the vagaries of “just teach them some stuff about slavery/daily life”.

WJEC lays things out a little differently. Their “Latin literature: themes and sources” paper is compulsory and worth 20%. Teachers have a choice of theme but whichever they choose consists of a mix of both prose and verse texts in the original language. There is also some supporting material, which is designed to place the texts in their cultural context. For the final paper, worth 30%, teachers can choose to prepare their students for “Latin literature narratives”(basically more set text work, mostly in the original with some sections in translation), or they can choose the “Roman civilisation” element, in which students study some general themes and sources all in translation. Personally, I will be avoiding that for the same reasons as I avoided the cultural background paper with OCR.

A key difference in approach to the literature between the two boards is that OCR literature examinations are closed book, which means that the students need to know the texts really well – frankly, they need to know them off by heart. WJEC take a rather different approach by making their examinations open book, meaning that students are provided with a clean copy of the Latin text plus the vocabulary list. In terms of teacher preparation and school investment, the very fact that WJEC provide the the texts and the vocabulary online as a PDF download is in itself quite a revelation – OCR leave you to get on with it all by yourself. That said, there is no set translation provided, so teachers will still need to prepare their own working translation and/or one for their students.

I am keen to reach out to teachers who are more experienced in preparing their students for the WJEC literature as I am as yet unsure how much they feel their students should rely on the texts in the examination. Something I recall from doing open-book examinations back when I sat my A levels is that you really don’t have time to be looking too many things up, so in reality you still needed to know the text like the back of your hand. I am also not sure how much advantage it will give students when the text is all in Latin; surely they still need to know a translation really well, since none of them will be truly capable of translating real Latin on sight (especially if they haven’t studied the OCR language specification!)

So, my mission now is to do so and start making as many friends as I can with the WJEC advocates. I am looking forward to the process. I am also excited about the prospect of working with different texts and I like WJEC’s decision to include supporting material, which forces teachers to contenxtualise the texts for their students; OCR’s approach encourages robotic rote-learning, which always felt like something of a shame. So, calling all teachers of WJEC – where are you? I’d love to learn from you.