Sunday, 21 November 2021

High stakes exams and mocks – let’s go low, low, low, low

I am surprised that we don’t talk enough about mental health on Twitter and through blogs – especially given that we’d just been through a pandemic. We’ve all been through a challenging experience that even most adults have struggled with. Contrary to media stories, it hasn’t been an extended holiday for teachers. I crave routines and patterns in my life. Only this week, a colleague joked how I love a system. It is true – I love routines and systems in school, and life. Occasionally, I might throw chaos in there by catching an illness or doing something different. We all love routine, secretly. That’s why moving schools is so difficult. Adjusting to a whole new set of systems and rules.  

For the last few years, there hasn’t been any regular routines for students. Instead, they’ve had to live in a world of vagaries. Will they have to go to school? Will school revert to online lessons? Will they have to sit exams? Will the work they do be included in their portfolio for grading? Uncertainty is natural part of life, but it is only a small part of life. The pandemic has made uncertainty a big part of everyone’s life. Instead of the uncertainty of Uncle Ben turning up at the weekend or not, we have the uncertainty of the structure of the week, month, year and our future. Tomorrow is always an uncertainty, but the options for what is going to happen are usually narrowed to a few options. Well, if X happens, we will do Y. If Z happens, then will just do nothing. Therefore, even with uncertain events like the future, there’s still a level of certainty in uncertainty.


When the future lacks a level of predictability, then we become anxious, unsettled and stressed. Take this equation:

stressed teacher + stressed student =  failure


Please be clear: I am not advocating a ‘smile as you teach policy’.  Instead, I am highlighting how we are building towards a toxic situation and we, and I mean all of us, have to do something about. Leaders are anxious because of the uncertainty of things. Teachers are anxious because of the uncertainty of the GCSES. Students are anxious because they don’t know what is and what isn’t important now. Feelings are absorbed. Like energy, they don’t disappear, but are transformed to another feeling or absorbed by someone else. A stressed student looks at the teacher and sees their stress and automatically that heightens their own stress. If the teacher is stressed about things, then it really must be bad. Teachers must be ‘loco parentis’. They must be the stability in situations. The physical stability. The emotional stability.


Teachers can have an impact on the feelings of students and now, more than ever, that’s important. We can orchestrate a sense of achievement, motivation and momentum or we can orchestrate the opposite in what we say and do. I know how I respond to things can have such an impact on what happens in the minds of students. Take these two responses to a class doing badly in an assessment:

[1] I am really disappointed. We spent ages on learning the structure to the question and only two of you remembered to use it in the mock exam.

[2] I get that some of you might be disappointed with your results, but I am not. A few tweaks and you’ll be there. We just need to make sure we remember the structure of the question.


Two ways of address and feeding back to students. One plays on emotional manipulation. The adult is disappointed and then forcing the students to feel disappointed. Then, apportioning the blame to the students. It is the students’ fault for the underperformance and not the teacher.  The other response doesn’t dismiss the feelings of the students but reframes it. Structures the ideas into something positive.

We remember how people made us feel rather than what they say, but in teaching we have to be so careful how we frame things. Yes, we might be disappointed with an assessment, but will sharing my feelings of this improve things?  Once, I worked for a boss who constantly shouted at staff. Not once did that make me work harder or better. Instead, it just made me avoid them. Later, I had a boss who did the opposite: they praised you when you did something really good. That motivated me more. Interestingly, I worked harder for that second boss, because I wanted more praise, than the other boss. I work harder and better with positivity than the negativity. That’s true in the classroom. Students are far more responsive with ‘meaningful positivity’ than negativity. Meaningful because it needs to have some value. Be positive about everything and then you devalue what is truly good. Like most things, it needs to be measured.

I don’t think the teachers are the only things to be mindful this year. I think mock exams are problematic, yet nobody is talking about it.

(stressed teacher + stressed student) x (mock exam x frequency)  =  failure

We have an assessment system that is built around the ‘do or die’ principle. Mocks are not only a depressing thing for teachers to mark, but they are depressing for students. They are either ‘yes, I got the grade I want’ or ‘no, I didn’t get the grade I want’. As much as we work on feedback, mocks highlight if a student is a success or a failure in their eyes. We like to think the students see them as a opportunity to learn, but a few do, but the rest don’t. Most of the problem is the fact that the mocks attempt to replicate the process of the final exams. Instead of the process being about preparation, it becomes replication in all manner of things. We replicate the emphasis, stress and impact of the final exams. Oh, and we do it in a two or three week block. So, in fact, we don’t just replicate the process, we turn it into something worse. The GCSE exams in a fortnight. The final exams are spread over months, yet we ‘in our attempt to help and replicate the experience’ condense it all into a fortnight. We are not replicating here, but creating a different monster.

We need to change the perspective of the mocks in everyone’s heads. Rarely, is it seen as a positive learning experience. No students uses the phrase ‘I learnt from the mocks…’. Students don’t really articulate that idea. Occasionally, teacher will learn from them, but given how many papers are set it is lucky if a teacher can recall their name after the process of marking a bazillion papers. Largely, they are viewed in negative terms. Every mock highlights what they cannot do. We produce lists of what the papers tell us they can’t do. We then build that into our teaching. The whole emphasis is on the negative. We dwell on the negative aspects. In fact, we don’t just dwell, we soak ourselves in the negative parts for months.

A mock is not the final exam. The more we treat it as one, the more problematic they become. Mocks are too high stakes for my liking. The final exam is where they need to be at their best. Everything before then is building to the final exam. A mock, in my opinion, should be centred around what a student can do, rather than what they can’t do. They should be an opportunity to highlight the green shoots. The seeds of success. The buds of brilliance. A student needs to know that they can succeed, yet instead we have mocks geared around high stakes and mistakes. Ideally, what I want students to see is that they need to replicate what they did in these green shoots and apply them to other areas where they are not so successful. A sense of achievement is so powerful. Students, if they do something well, they will repeat it again and again. Why are we not using this element more in education?  Replicating the successes is as equally important as learning from mistakes; otherwise, students learn from mistakes but don’t repeat the early successes.

If we are to help students in these uncertain times, we need to change our perspective on mocks. They should be an opportunity for us to praise and reward the green shoots. They should be an opportunity for us to show students that there are green shoots in their work and with a bit of watering and feeding they could be truly successful in the final exam.

This term, I have started saying the following in class:

Mistakes are good. I need you to make mistakes in mocks, assessments and lessons, because that’s where you’ll learn not to make them again. The only time we don’t want those mistakes are in the final exam and that’s why we are working to learn from them now. We are building to perfection. I want to see some green shoots.

 What teachers say and do changes the stakes for students? What SLT do with mocks changes the stakes for students? The only time we need high stakes is the final exam. That’s where it matters. Everything else is building to that point.

Come on people: search for those green shoots and praise the students for them!

Thanks for reading,



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