Personally Speaking; What and who are the mocks supposed to be for?

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The Independent Online
Like relatives at Christmas, the GCSE mock examinations in January are regarded as grim seasonal necessities. Beleaguered teachers, already up to their necks in setting and assessing coursework, find further huge dollops of marking landing on their desks. Pupils smart with resentment at the recent ruin of their Christmas holidays and the prospects of the barren, post-festive wastes of January being even more desolate than usual. Assuming that suffering in school needs more justification than vague notions of masochism as character-building, what and who are the mocks supposed to be for?

My recent research work, which looked at how more than 800 pupils in six schools handled the pressures of the GCSE year, suggests that no other single event in the whole GCSE programme causes as much fury amongst pupils as the mocks. The wreckage of the holidays obviously has a lot to do with it: "I have had four days off over the holidays, two for visiting relatives, one for relatives visiting us, and Christmas Day" (boy in grant maintained selective). Two other often-quoted reasons, however, can apply equally to those schools which have moved their mocks to before Christmas. One is to do with the difficulty of revising when the coursework load is high: "We are being set lots of work at the time of the exams" (boy in comprehensive school). "I would like to know when I'm supposed to revise, when I'm always completing/correcting homework" (girl in private grammar school). The other is the apparent lack of co-ordination between teachers in the setting of work: "Teachers seem to forget that they're not the only teachers setting work" (girl in independent selective). "Each teacher seems to think their coursework is the most important" (girl in comprehensive school). The resulting chaotic mixture of coursework and revision creates enormous pressures for pupils. Is this to be seen as just another hurdle to jump, or have the mocks had their day?

I believe the latter. First, the time between the mocks and the actual exams is too narrow for much to be done about improving results in any case. The earliest possible date for mocks results to be available is the end of January, if they are held just before Christmas, and at least mid-February if they are held at the beginning of the second term. The actual GSCE exams now usually start in mid-April, leaving two months as about the standard time available for whatever changes need to be made, and much of that is going to be taken up with the submission of final coursework assignments.

Second, the mocks fail to take proper account of the rising influence of coursework. They hark back to days when everything depended on the final exams, and there are now few subjects where that continues to be true. Teachers spend a lot of time impressing on their pupils that coursework must be done, and if choices have to be made between revising for the mocks and doing coursework, many pupils will prioritise the coursework, with a consequent downgrading of the mocks.

Third, most schools do, or can, hold full sets of examinations at the end of Year 10. This does give a sufficient time span to enable pupils to turn things around if they are falling behind, and is more comparable with the real exams, in terms of time of the school year climate etc ... If these Year 10 exams assume greater importance, becoming the mocks themselves, the greater focus may prevent many pupils from wasting Year 10 to quite the extent that they do now. Year 11 can then become the logical progression of coursework conclusions and revision which the present mocks are so rudely interrupting.

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