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Back in the learning seat

Taking school exams is for children, right? Not necessarily. Laura Frascona talks to the teachers who've braved A-levels, GCSEs and key stage tests to see how the other half learn

Taking school exams is for children, right? Not necessarily. Laura Frascona talks to the teachers who've braved A-levels, GCSEs and key stage tests to see how the other half learn

Taking school exams is for children, right? Not necessarily. Laura Frascona talks to the teachers who've braved A-levels, GCSEs and key stage tests to see how the other half learn

I'm not taking this exam, you are," exasperated teachers often tell their pupils. This much-used phrase can conceal a hidden sense of relief among teachers that their own exam days are behind them. Which makes it more remarkable that some brave souls will be sitting exams alongside their pupils this summer. Whatever possesses a qualified teacher to put themselves through the torture of GCSEs or A-levels all over again?

The answers vary considerably. Alison Smith decided on the spur of the moment to sit the key stage 3 English test with her pupils, because she wanted to gain an insight into their experiences. Alison, the head of English at Millom School in Cumbria, was particularly keen to test her suspicion that Year 9 pupils were overwhelmed by the large amount of school reading material.

Her suspicions were confirmed. "The range and density of material in the exam booklet felt outfacing even to me, someone who speed reads," she says. She now gives her Year 9s practical tips on dealing with this large volume of material. As well as taking key stage 3 tests, Alison sat the advanced extension award in English with her sixth formers.

"Sitting in the exam hall, writing my name and candidate number on the exam paper and waiting for the exam to start was one of the worst experiences of my life," she admits.

However, Alison was fine once she got started and emerged with the highest mark in the class.

"Although it was in my own subject, I had an odd worry that I had not done very well, so I was relieved to get my distinction." Alison beat the next person down by just three marks.

Clare Costello, head of science at Shoeburyness High School in Essex, did it for personal reasons. She had always regretted abandoning her physics A-level at school so, 20 years on, decided to have another try. The competition provided an additional motivation. "I'm a competitive person and I couldn't let Mark, who took AS biology in the same year, beat me. The potential embarrassment factor of having to confess that I did badly to colleagues did weigh on my mind."

Clare got an A, her competitor, Mark Smith, lead physics teacher at Shoeburyness, also sat AS biology and chemistry. He got a B in biology and a D in chemistry. Of the three sciences, Mark had only taken physics A-level as a teenager, and had subsequently always felt less able to teach biology and chemistry.

"My background knowledge is much wider and in-depth in my own subject, physics," he says. "I think teachers' depth of knowledge to talk around a subject and be able to answer awkward questions is really important."

However, sitting exams doesn't just improve your subject knowledge, it helps you communicate it, he believes. "Sitting biology and chemistry AS levels reminded me of what it was like to be a student. I consciously thought about what makes learning stimulating, and reflected on the experiences I gave my classes."

Studying was mostly done at home, as timetabling made sitting in on lessons virtually impossible. That said, Mark and other teachers at Shoeburyness did manage to attend some of the timetabled sixth form lessons, particularly the practical coursework and revision classes.

"We've always got people nipping in and out of lessons, so it was pretty run of the mill for pupils," says Jeff Goodman, another science teacher who took an AS physics exam at the same school.

John Shell, senior learning mentor at Biddick School Sports College in Tyne and Wear, also attended timetabled lessons with his pupils in a bid to gain formal recognition for the art and design skills he had acquired in his prior job in human resources.

Susan Coles, the school's art teacher at the time, suggested that he join her Year 11 digital art group. "It did not feel strange or humiliating. Quite the opposite. I would sit alongside my peers and together with Sue we bonded into a good team," John says.

Of course, studying at home seriously cuts into a teacher's precious free time. Fiona Moss, a modern languages teacher at Cirencester Deer Park School in Gloucestershire, says: "I had to be disciplined, especially at weekends and in the holidays."

As a result of her GCSE in Spanish, Fiona is now teaching Year 8 Spanish at beginners' level. She says: "The main thing for me was the discovery of how dense the amount of work is that you need to revise.

"Having experienced recently what they have to go through, it's easier to give them tried and tested ways to tackle revision."

It also improved her relationship with her pupils. "Year 11 pupils know I have taken the GCSE and respect me more for having done so," she says.

All the teachers believed that they had benefited from their experiences.

Sue Murphy, headteacher of Shoeburyness, where five members of the science department have sat exams, is pleased to see staff going the whole hog. She believes it sets a good example to pupils.

"What better role model than having teachers sitting in the lessons and exams with you?" she says.

Net gains

Pupils reap the benefits when their teachers learn alongside them, Eleanore Hargreaves explains.

"The success of our teaching depends on the relationship we have with our pupils. If pupils see teachers as 'knowing it all,' pupils can justify feeling it's them versus us.

But teachers who learn alongside pupils make supportive learning partners in classrooms.

Teachers as learners in school can relate to pupils on their own terms. They can even swap notes about the interesting bits and best ways to get through the exam.

Teachers who are open and honest about what they don't know, and what they want to learn, encourage pupils to make realistic evaluations of their own learning. These teachers model learning as a fluid, never-ending and desirable activity for pupils.

Teachers who are learning also approach subject information with a lively and inquiring mind, an ideal state for teaching.

It doesn't matter what teachers learn, so long as they put themselves into the role of someone grappling with learning.

The words 'learning community' gain true meaning in schools where teachers and pupils grapple together."

Eleanore Hargreaves is a lecturer in assessment for learning at the Institute of Education in London.

How it works

- Improves teachers' understanding of children's needs and how to meet them.

- Prepares teachers introducing a new course.

- Increases teachers' subject knowledge and personal development.

- Strengthens pupil-teacher relationships.

- Supports life long learning within the school.

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