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Exam technique: a moral dilemma

I bloody hate these exams. GCSEs and SATs have ripped the soul out of the education system over the past few years. Many of the things that 11 year olds are expected to know to have had a successful primary education are just mind blowingly boring as well as completely unnecessary for the real world. At the secondary schools I have taught at, the SATs have been largely ignored and students have been retested at the start of year 7 to get a more "real" assessment of where they are at. Total. Waste. Of. Time. I personally would prefer my children and the children I teach to spend more time in their final year at primary school going on residentials, creating school plays, reading and writing engaging literature and getting to grips with the wonders of the universe in a hands-on way. But what do I know? As a result, I refuse to even contemplate teaching to the test for my primary school students. I refuse to add stress to a group of students far before the time that most kids should be worrying about tests. If teaching to the test for SATs is what you are after, then I am not the tutor for you. I will happily work on students literacy, confidence and enjoyment however.

On the other hand, GCSEs do matter to students' futures (at least in the short term) and they do help students get to the next stage. So while I feel strongly that the new curriculum is sapping creativity from schools and subjects and concentrating too much on rote learning of useless information, I also see that they are a necessary evil and that students do need to learn how to answer the exam questions. The sad reality is that English lessons have become far too often lessons that are about passing an exam and much less about giving students the skills they need to do well in the real world.

The writing side of the English papers at GCSE, I must admit, concentrates on communication, having a voice, tone, storywriting, vocabulary, spelling, punctuation and grammar. These all sound like pretty good real world skills to me whether the child plans to finish education as soon as possible or to help them on the way to that PhD. There is some exam technique that should be learned for the writing side of the exam such as planning as much as you can before you go into an exam and knowing some structures you can use for your writing but the exam here is mostly something that should be useful in later life.

It is the reading part of the test (for both English literature and language) that puts me in a sticky moral position. On the one hand, I don't want to teach students to the test. On the other hand, I know that teaching students very specific structures for answering and getting students to learn quotations parrot fashion is the best way to success.

And that is where I have come to the conclusion that all that I can do is work in the system that I have been given. The current system demands that much of the work in years 9-11 has to be about ensuring that students are able to answer exam questions in a way that hits the mark-scheme. This is a sad state of affairs but in all of my experience, the students that do best in the English literature and the English language reading are the ones that have been absolutely slammed with exam technique on a regular basis in the years leading up to the exams. You could say, leave it until year 11 and for some students this would very well be the best. If a student can pick up an idea fairly quickly, it may make sense to allow them to enjoy English right up to the last year. However, some students need much more time to gain practice of these skills and so writing in a way that will gain marks at GCSE is creeping earlier and earlier into students' schooling. There's also the argument that the sooner that students can use basic exam skills, the sooner they are able to start to delve much more deeply into the meanings, characterisation, symbolism and themes of the texts they are reading. If they are still worrying about exam technique at this late stage, the worry is that their amazing interpretations go by the wayside.

So the upshot of all of this for you parents is that you need to realise that there are some parts of the GCSE that are not ideal and not useful for the real world. This is a great shame. However, we live in the real world too and right now the best way to success for your children is to ensure that students are really comfortable with exam technique as soon as is possible so that they can then unlock their creativity and inspiration to do something fantastic with the exams they are given.

As a result of all this, I do teach some exam technique from quite young but try not to mention the word GCSE until year 9 and very rarely even then. I also like to teach GCSE techniques whilst reading an engaging book or text so that my lessons never feel like a succession of drab exam papers. It's a tricky dilemma when your morals for what make a good education clash with the needs of your students to succeed in the present. At the end of the day, it's them that matter. So until the government move back towards creativity and deep thought, this is what we're stuck with. Exam technique it is then. Let's go.

If your child does need some clarity around exam technique, call me on 07743378429 or message me on my Facebook page,

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