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  • Writer's pictureclairevharley

Planning and Implementing Effective Mock Exams

Mock exams are part of the furniture in most secondary schools in the UK. You probably sat them yourself at school, or at least experienced some kind of testing process, but as our understanding of assessment grows, so too does the number of questions we have about what makes mock exams effective.


There is a lot of discussion about mock exams on social media. How many sets of mock exams are right? When should they happen? How much pressure should pupils be put under? All interesting questions that I think can only be answered by those leading and working in a school as they best understand it’s context. As it’s getting to the time of year where most schools will be thinking about planning their January mocks for Year 11. I’m currently working as Assistant Principal for Curriculum at my school and so mocks fall under my area of responsibility.


I’ve made it my mission to ensure that the mocks not only run as smoothly as possible, but that they are a useful tool through which we can raise the profile of academic thinking and positive behaviour for learning at our school.

I do this because I think that mocks set the tone for the school. They indicate if we do what we say we do. From the creation of mock papers to the way we analyse data, the way that mocks are conducted are a reflection of the effectiveness of middle and senior leadership as well as whether pupils see working hard as ‘normal’. I get that mocks are important because they are an indicator of potential future successes at GCSE, but they can show us so much more than that. They tell us how well teaching, learning and behaviour strategies are landing.


For those of you who have been teaching for longer than me, you’ll remember the days when mock exams weren’t so high profile for us as school leaders and teachers as well as for the pupils. My colleague read this blog ahead of me posting it (thank, Ben!) and said that he could remember the days when you’d only really start thinking about this process in January of Year 11. When mock predicted grades were less about accuracy and more about giving pupils a push to put the effort in before the real thing. I definitely remember this from my own experiences of school. I would argue, however, that in the current educational context in the UK, we aren’t there anymore. The paradigm in which we are operating has changed and the stakes are now higher. How we have to approach mock exams needs to be more high profile and ultimately more carefully considered.


I think I’ve written this as a guide for new senior leaders who are organising mocks for the first time. The kind of guide that I’d have found useful when I first started. Many of these ideas you’ll have seen before. Most of the strategies I’ve found incredibly useful have come from having a school PiXL membership. I’ve not reinvented the wheel by any stretch of the imagination, but really believe that we can learn so much about how schools are operating by exploring how to do each of the elements of the mock exam process with care in a way that works for our staff and pupils. I hope this is useful for you also.


Why are mock exams important for pupils?


Well… predicted grades and a starting point for thinking about college is the obvious answer you know about already, but I have another argument also.


Effective mock exams that replicate the real GCSEs are a kindness. The exam pressure pupils face have an impact of pupils mental health (Smith et al., 2019) and the effectives of ‘test anxiety’ are well-documented (Brown et al., 2022). The kindest thing we can do, therefore, as we prepare pupils for the most stressful experience many of them will have had in their young lives is to create a clear behaviour curriculum for how the exams work. This includes the obvious, such as following exam regulations, not having a phone etc., but also things like creating a clear mental model of where bags go, where they stand and who the invigilators are.


Additionally, if you really think about it, exams are a very strange experience. There are very few other times in life where 200 people sit together in one space in total silence for two hours. Many pupils find this unnerving. Practicing this is important as we can support pupils to get used to this environment and properly identify and support those who can’t.


Why are mocks important for teachers and leaders?


As I’ve said earlier, middle and senior leaders can benefit massively from using the mock exams as a way of determining whether policies have actually landed. Raising the profile of exams (and summative assessments more generally) is an important part of a school’s improvement journey. Once you have behaviour sorted and you’re working on your teaching and learning, you’ll see the impact of this through how seriously your school and your wider community take these exams. Have we really thought about what questions we want to ask or have we just plucked a past paper from the website (not always a bad thing, but it’s not great if it’s just done because it’s easy)? Are pupils revising? Are parents on board and encouraging revision at home?


Effective line management are essential to the planning of purposeful mock exams as the communication about how exams are being created, how we are going to undertake them and what we are going to do with the information once we have it only works when SLT link and Head of Department have a shared, clear understanding of what this should look like.

Will put my checklist for each stage of the mock exams at the end of this piece, but ultimately each stage of the process needs to be carefully mapped out. This will look different in different schools and I hope you find things here that are useful to you.


1. Communicate


Parents need to understand that mocks are a big deal. We send home letters, text message and exam schedules so that parents are informed about what is happening, when it is happening and what our expectations are. Information about when the exams are happening is obvious, but also share revision timetables, when and where they can revise at school and how parents can help at home using the EEF guidance on metacognition as a framework (EEF, 2021). I am also a big fan of PiXL’s personal learning checklists as they help teachers and pupils identify what they need to do next. I think you’d be hard pushed to overcommunicate this, so texts, emails and reminders home in the weeks before the mocks will raise their profile with parents.


2. Plan out your staffing


When I first started planning the mocks three years ago, I didn’t want to be too dictatorial and as a result teachers actually requested more clear-cut expectations for what they should be doing and when. I therefore created a checklist that middle leaders could use as a blueprint (or adapt as needed) and also created a duty rota complete with descriptions for what to do whilst out on duty for all teacher. This is an example here:

Location

Description of Role

SLT

Make sure that the corridors are silent and that no pupils are walking through to go to the toilet during the lesson. Ensure silent transitions into hums at the start and end of your lesson

Top of Hums Stairs

Make sure that the corridors are silent and that no pupils are walking through to go to the toilet during the lesson. Ensure silent transitions into hums at the start and end of your lesson

​Concessions Rooms

​Support/invigilate in the concessions rooms (H5 and H10). Circulate around the room making sure that pupils are working in exam conditions. Feel free to bring your laptop for moments when all pupils are focused

Outside Sports Hall

Making sure that pupils are lining up quietly and that they know their seat numbers, have got their equipment etc. Monitoring mobiles at the beginning and end

Seating Plan

Stand by the seating plan that is displayed by the entrance to the hall and make sure all pupils have their seat number

​Inside Hall

Circulate around the room making sure that pupils are working in exam conditions. Feel free to bring your laptop for moments when all is focused. If at the end of the exam, walk pupils back up to school.



3. Reward Good Behaviour


Where possible, use an extended break or lunchtime as a motivational tool. I always tell pupils that if they show us they can be trusted to act like young adults, they will be rewarded by extended free time. This also helps teachers get the full hour of time to work on other things whilst the pupils are supervised by a smaller group of SLT. This builds positive relationships with staff as people feel so short on time at the minute (TeacherTapp, 2019). I’ve never actually extended break by more than around ten minutes, but it builds up that relationship ahead of the real exams where behaviour can start to get a bit fizzy towards the end of the year. What’s really heartwarming is seeing them use this time to build each other up and revise for their afternoon exam.


4. Gain as much feedback as possible


The more people you ask, the more useful feedback you will get. The obvious benefit of sitting mock exams is that we know which aspects of the areas of the curriculum we have tested pupils know and which they don’t. We can ascertain how committed they are to their studies. These things together provide us with a plan for what we can do to help them as much as possible until the end of the year.


Again, PiXL introduced me to the concept of exam wrappers and it’s really helped us gain an insight into who is revising and who isn’t. Additionally, we also have an exams attitude log where we ask teachers and invigilators to record any concerns they have about pupils behaviour. This can lead to me phoning home to explain exam rules were broken, or if a child is struggling, supportive steps we can take between now and the real exams to help them feel calm and prepared.


Middle leaders taking ownership of their papers and feeding back to staff how they are going to adapt revision and curriculum based on what they’ve learnt from the mocks is invaluable. For me, its much more about the curriculum content and focusing on individuals and their needs rather than an overly complicated review of pupil group or class analysis.


Conclusion


Effective mock exams need effective behaviour for learning, effective timetabling and transparent line management to be a success. They are so much more than a way to generate predicted grades, but instead are a barometer for the culture in your school.


When done well, they are a chance to show Year 11 that you value them and want to support them as much as possible.


When given the blueprint for what might work for them, it is a chance for middle leaders to exert their expertise and authority over their subject areas.


When we listen really carefully, they are a mechanism to notice the signs that pupils are asking us for help.


Checklist





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