This phrase is currently haunting school corridors; passing over the lips of students with a mixture of composure and anxiety, and muttered by teachers as they stare at forecast data and imagine piles of papers looming over the horizon.
Mock exam season is upon us in English schools; as students who are facing GCSE and A Level exams this year get a practice round just in time for the New Year, hopefully acquainting them with the format of the exam and helping to avoid major pitfalls in the summer.
For me as a teacher, it is a time of anxiety and creeping self-doubt as I stare at a roomful of students, not seeing the individuals they are, but a bunch of grades that I am frantically trying to squeeze into the desired range (usually set by a computer or senior leadership). This leaves me with a lingering question:
‘Have I done enough?’
The recent rise in performance-related pay progression targets being used by academies and the endemic focus on the ‘A-C’ percentage has resulted in mock exams being yet another way for a school to measure the performance of its students and teachers. Admittedly the introduction of value-added scores and Progress 8 has started to move schools away from focusing on the C (or soon to be 6) grade threshold, and slowly pushing schools to consider individual student circumstance when assessing student and teachers’ performances.
But despite ‘value-added’ being discussed at length in briefings and department meetings, I’m still feeling the pressure of achieving the right amount of ‘progress’ or ‘attainment’ to be satisfactory. At heart, accountability has stayed firmly with the teacher. Mock exams seem to function as a crude early warning system, with the mental health of both students and teachers held ransom to results.
There is a conflict that is summarised by a website for teachers where I came across ‘Ten Top Tips for Mock Exams’ containing:
"2. It’s not ‘only the mocks’
Many teachers and students will be familiar with the saying “it’s only the mocks”, and while this viewpoint may be reassuring, students can fail to take mock exams seriously as a result. Emphasise the importance of taking the exams seriously, but avoid putting students under excess pressure."
Closely followed by:
"6. It’s only the mocks
Even though this point of view can discourage students from working hard, teachers should remember that the mock exams are a learning experience and try not to put themselves under too much pressure. Stressed teachers can lead to stressed students, so remember – it’s only the mocks!"
This, I feel summarises the crisis of the mock exams in a nutshell – the inevitable pressure on outcomes for both staff and students that cannot be downplayed while equally mocks don’t provide a concrete contribution toward their future lives. They serve merely as some form of moral tale: ‘work harder’ if you’re unlucky, or ‘don’t worry so much’ if you are more fortunate – for both students and teachers. As a result teachers are stuck in a sort of limbo, unable to fix, appease, or predict anything for either party.
Mock exams can be a useful diagnostic tool, highlighting potential weaknesses in student knowledge and exam technique so that they can be improved in time for the real thing. However, performance-based pay progression and student anxiety have transformed mock exams into another accountability stick to beat teachers with. And what are the results of this?
The National Union Teachers recently listed just some of the detrimental effects of high-stakes accountability on staff and students, including:
• Teaching is heavily focused on the material that will be tested, and on how to pass
• There is a deterioration in the quality of teacher-pupil relationships;
• There is an increase in stress, anxiety and mental health problems linked to school work
• The children and young people who suffer most from the impact of accountability
measures are those who are disadvantaged or have special educational needs.
So what should be done?
If we embrace the vulnerability of both students and teachers during mocks, by taking away expectations of grades, and focus on how to practise exams themselves then I feel we can generate utility from the exercise: enabled by senior leadership, teachers are allowed the space to discuss what success can look like for the students, how that can be accessed – and most importantly – what can be done if things don’t go according to plan.
This stands for both exam results and sitting the exams themselves – how many schools teach resilience and self-care as part of their revision sessions? Go further, formative assessment on how students prepare for the exams – what is their diet? How do they revise? What did they do on the morning of the exam? What support did they seek out beforehand? Have the accountability lie in a student survey on their understanding of and emotions towards exams pre and post-mocks. The outcomes can still be measured, but in a way that is actually preparing them for the summer, both on a practical and emotional level.
Mocks could be a time for teachers AND students to make, acknowledge and understand the mistakes we often encounter the first time we attempt anything, and thus learn vital lessons for the next attempt. I want to help create space in both my classroom and staff room to discuss the disasters, surprise triumphs, and overwhelming endeavour of both students and teachers in a season that is sent to try us without it feeling like it’s costing my sanity or their future.