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,



Sunday, 14 November 2021

Consciously crafting controlled and concise writing on a granular level

The reading extract on Paper 1 wouldn’t get a 9, would it? 

I admit I have a style of writing I prefer. A crisp, concise style of writing that doesn’t throw the kitchen sink at you when you are reading it. Each word is thoughtfully placed and positioned in a sentence and nothing is superfluous. The problem is that students don’t automatically write like that. It is only a few students that write with such precision. Often they are the  diligent readers in KS3. Through regular reading they have absorbed a style that seems effortless, yet is so measured and controlled. These students are usually at the top in terms in attainment and outcomes. But, they don’t write like Raymond Chandler or Charles Dickens, yet we insist on a verbose style that is the lovechild of these and several authors when it comes to writing. Oh go on add another adjective.  

There are a few writers that optimise this style for me. Jon McGregor is one such author. He can be detailed with his prose, but largely it is concise and I love it. Look at this example from his latest novel ‘Lean Fall Stand’.

When the storm came in it was unexpected and Thomas Myers was dropped to his knees.

The air darkened in the distance. There was a roar and everything went white against him. It had a kind of violence he was prepared for. He wrapped his arms around his head and lay flat on the ice to keep from being hurled away.

This takes place in the opening chapter and you could image this in the hands of a student would be swamped in adjectives, similes and personification. We wouldn’t just have a storm, but instead a ‘violent storm attacking its prey’ and we’d have a ‘roar of primal hunger’. Holding back, and knowing when to hold back, is a skills that takes time.  Dickens would have endless lists and repetition. Chandler would have a simile every other line. Be measured with writing is never on our agenda.

Crafting is hard and the granular aspect of writing isn’t focused on enough in lessons. We like to use a granular approach to writing literature essays, but we shy away from it with creative writing, because we think creative writing is hindered by a granular approach to teaching. With that in mind, a lot of what we do with students is post-writing or pre-writing and never during writing. We wants students to pause and explore options, yet our focus on teaching always focuses on the preparation and planning or the damage control and proofreading. Instead, we need to look at the point of the writing process. That’s why modelling the process is so important. But, I think there needs to be something more in the process. Even more granular.

The following is a small sequence of events I use with students to develop the skill of crafting. To start off, I explore how simple sentences can be used to structure a story.


Tom had everything he wanted for his birthday.

However, the one thing he really wanted was a telephone call.

A call from his father.

It is easy, when exploring writing, to start with a complex sentence structure, but clarity in the first instance is key. We look at how, with three simple sentences, we can structure a story or an event. I like this example because it shifts the mood and each sentence changes the mood. There is a build up of information, which could easily be squeezed into one sentence. It becomes one type of model for them. I then show them some others and look at how sentences and how they are structured and ordered can control the meaning.


A smile covered his face.

It hid the darkness of his thoughts.

Only one thing was on his mind: murder.


This example helps them to see the same process again, but with a different story and slight changes. The great thing about this is the economy of words and sentences. It forces them to look at how the writing can be crafted. It is too easy to neglect simple sentences, but in doing this you can help students to build a range of structures, because concise writers depend on simple and compound sentences. They don’t use a complex sentence all the time.

Next, I show them one final one which we use as a template for more crafting.


Light flickered through the trees.

Joy could be heard in the distance.

This was her safe place.

This example helps to show how you can craft ambiguity and use that for effect. The joy in the second sentence could be happiness from a park or it could be the name of someone called Joy. It isn’t until the last sentence that we understand which one. At this level, you can show students how you can be playful and purposefully vague with things such as ‘it’, to hide the identity.



Light flickered through the trees.

As the darkness leaked across the grass, the stream trickled.

Joy could be heard in the distance.

Birds scattered away, hiding from the girl who tortured insects.

This was her safe place.

The next stage is to show how to expand on things. This is where I consider when to use complex or compound sentences. At this stage, I limit the amount I use. I do this so that students can see how the sentences interact and work with each other. These now add contrast and build a level of foreshadowing in the writing. The darkness hints at Joy’s hobby of torturing animals.  Furthermore, the meaning of ‘her safe place’ is transformed with the knowledge that girl tortures insects. This place is now the place where she supposedly mistreats them and she is hidden away from the world. The lovely, positive piece of writing is transformed with two sentences and there was no need to mention zombies or creepy houses.

Using complex sentence effectively takes time and we, all to often, insist on them being used but don’t explore the crafting of them. We’ll teach a sentence construction, but we don’t always interrogate them in action. I like doing this here to show how they fit together and how students can flip between simple and complex sentence. Furthermore, they don’t need them everywhere, but used sparingly and appropriately.



As the darkness…










When I am showing the complex sentences, I use it as an example to show how I work with selecting words. Largely students pick the first word that comes to mind and they rarely stop and reflect on their choice. The instance of writing being a fluent and fluid process means that students don’t pause to think. They select the idea and convert to a sentence quickly. I like, at this point, to show them how to ponder a word choice. We do this a lot with analysis, yet with writing this process isn’t explicit or instructed. We want students in the final assessments to self-select words, but they don’t do it internally so I address this here. We talk about the different impact of each word and which one works best in the context.

Pausing is a regular thing writings do and I don’t think we articulate this enough. Students largely pause at sentences and not with words. That pause can add so much meaning to a sentence.



As the darkness leaked across the grass

What kind of grass?

Is it important, at this time, to describe the grass?

Is it necessary?

The next stage for me is then adding some meat to the bones of the writing. Or maybe not. Adjectives are useful but, my goodness me, they get everywhere. A bit like sand. The default is to use an adjective every time there is a noun in a sentence. Yet, the question of its effectiveness is never questioned. It is just assumed that an adjective is great so put them in all the time. That’s why I like this stage. Asking a question like ‘Is putting an adjective in here really necessary?’ helps them to evaluate their choices. Do we need to know what the grass looks like specifically? Would it add anything to the writing?

At this stage, I employ the CLiC Dickens concordance and explore how Dickens uses the noun ‘grass’ in his writing. This is a great tool for not only exploring a text, but also modelling how writers place words in a sentence. They are usually shocked when they see that Dickens hasn’t used the cliché of ‘green grass’ at all.


I also use this website to help students to see different phrases and syntax in sentences to mirror. Like Google, students have an algorithm in their heads. An algorithm that resorts to the most popular search when using a noun, verb, adjective or piece of figurative language. That’s why grass is always green. The algorithm says so. That’s why the haunted house is always creepy. The algorithm says so. That’s why the speeding object is like a rocket. The algorithm says so.

Big readers in KS3 are usually the students to have outwitted the algorithm, but the students who read fewer books are held back by the algorithm. That’s why at most stages we should offer alternatives. I live showing a page of the concordance and letting students weave some phrases or word combination. I even promote song lyrics. If they are writing about love, then they have a bank of phrases already in their brain to use. We just need to remind them of it.



Light flickered through the trees.

As the darkness leaked across the grass, the stream trickled.

Joy could be heard in the distance.

Birds scattered away, hiding from the girl who tortured insects.

This was her safe place.

A prison for animals. 



The next stage is to add figurative language, but I only insist on one piece. However, there is a condition. The figurative language must lift the writing in some way. It must add to the meaning or the effect. Too often similes, personification and metaphors are thrown into a piece of writing without thought. I like this stage, because it really challenges the thinking process. Not a case of what, but why. Why use that metaphor? Why there? Why not?

We force students to be lazy with figurative language by insisting it is there. That’s why we can a disorientating and dizzy collection of examples in a text. One simile used well is much better than twelve metaphors and six examples of personification.



Light flickered through the trees.

As the darkness leaked across the grass like an unforgiveable thought, the stream trickled.

Joy could be heard in the distance.

Birds scattered away, hiding from the girl who tortured insects.

This was her safe place.


If we look at the texts used in the GCSE exams, they often only have one simile and a few metaphors. Good writing isn’t about lots of similes and metaphors, but about using the right one at the right time.

Seeing how one in the right place lifts and adds to the meaning is key for the writer’s craft.





Light flickered through the trees.

Like an unforgiveable thought, the darkness leaked across the grass as the stream trickled.

In the distance, Joy could be heard.

Hiding from the girl who tortured insects, birds scattered away. 

This was her safe place.


Light flickered through the trees.

As the darkness leaked across the grass like an unforgiveable thought, the stream trickled.

Joy could be heard in the distance.

Birds scattered away, hiding from the girl who tortured insects.

This was her safe place.



Next, I look at sentence manipulation and syntax. Together, we explore how the sentences can be restructured and how the meaning is impacted. We explore how moving the position of Joy in a sentence hides the ambiguity of the original. We also explore how positioning ‘birds scatted away’ at the end of sentence builds up the surprise. Using a small section of writing like this really helps to show the finer elements of crafting.



Light flickered through the trees.  Like an unforgiveable thought, the darkness leaked across the grass as the stream trickled. In the distance, Joy could be heard. Hiding from the girl who tortured insects, birds scattered away. 

This was her safe place.

But, it wasn’t theirs. 

Finally, I get students to think about how it is placed on the page and exploring how paragraphing can be used to support meaning. For further effect, we added the last touch ‘But, it wasn’t theirs’ to place emphasis more on the victims of her cruelty rather than her.


Our focus on writing is dominated by the addition of something. You see that obsession with checklists. Never once have I seen the removal of adjectives on a checklist. Good writing is crafted and that crafting isn’t something we can simplify to a checklist. We need to be explicit all the time about the granular decisions in writing. Never assume anything with writing. If we take our time with the simple steps, then we get to heart of the problems.

I always liked 'slow writing' but I think we need to be even slower with the writing still.  

Thanks for reading,