‘Double-decker buses drop off hundreds at the showground’

One college hires the only local facility big enough to accommodate nearly 800 students resitting GCSEs

Stephen Exley

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“You are now under exam conditions,” starts the recorded message. “Please remain silent.” The laughter, jokes and conversations about England’s chances at Euro 2016 slowly die out, as hundreds of students file into the cavernous exam hall. There are dozens of rows of desks, each with an English GCSE paper placed on it. The atmosphere becomes more tense; many of the students have bad memories of the last time they sat a paper in this subject.

The Norfolk Showground is more accustomed to hosting fairs and agricultural trade shows. But, for several weeks this summer, its arena is being used by students at City College Norwich who are resitting their maths and English GCSEs.

Across the two subjects, there are more than 2,000 entries, making it one of the biggest resit cohorts in the country.

This year, it is a condition of colleges’ funding that students who have not achieved an elusive C grade in either of the subjects should resit it. The sheer numbers involved – around 1,200 students are due to sit this paper alone – mean that City College has been forced to think big.

Around 400 students – mostly those with special access requirements – stay at the college site. One and a half floors of the main building have been locked down, with dozens of classrooms and offices turned into makeshift exam halls. But this is just the tip of the iceberg: six buses (most of them double deckers) have been hired to ferry almost 800 candidates to the showground, which is the only open space the college could find that was large enough to accommodate a sitting on this scale.

Outside the hall are 12 laptops set up to register the students, who can also leave their bags and coats at a cloakroom facility that would be the envy of many a music festival.

Minutes after the first students started looking for their desks, others are still quietly filing into the room. Each one has been assigned a colour – red, yellow, orange, green, blue, pink, purple or black – corresponding with one of the eight sections of the hall in which their desk is located.

Last year, teachers brandished coloured umbrellas to guide students to their desks; problems arose when they ran out of different colours. This year, coloured posters have been displayed on easels instead.

A ‘rain of exam papers’

Students suffering from anxiety are the last ones to be led into the exam hall. Some sit separately from the others at the front of the hall, facing the wall so they do not feel overwhelmed by the hundreds of their peers surrounding them. Others are led to the back, as they feel more comfortable knowing that there is no one sitting behind them.

“This is your last chance to hand in your mobile phones,” continues the recorded message, broadcast across the hall using a PA system to ensure that all of the students hear the message at the same time. “Failure to do so may result in disqualification.”

Students fill in their names and centre numbers on the front of the exam paper, before silence descends once more.

“You may start now.” The sound of hundreds of students turning over the first page of the exam paper echoes around the hall. “It sounds like rain,” whispers Ray Goodman, head of the school of GCSE, English and maths (GEM).

As the students get down to the serious business of their exam, IT support technician Stephen Brown checks his phone to find out how many students registered their arrival on his custom-made system.

Of the 777 students expected at the showground, 117 failed to arrive. It later transpires that some arrived late (they are still allowed to sit the paper, provided they arrive within 30 minutes of the start), while others ended up sitting the exam at the main college campus. Inevitably, others didn’t make it at all; whether this was down to illness, unforeseen circumstances or individuals simply deciding not to turn up, it’s impossible to know at this stage.

Given that many of these students had a miserable time with GCSEs at school, the college aims to make the experience this time round as different as possible.

“Everybody needs a way found for them,” Goodman explains. “Our teachers know the students and the way they work best.

“It’s a festival environment. There’s this field with buses, there are people buzzing around everywhere. You get your water, your flapjack, your banana. It’s a time out from that normal environment. There’s time to chat to friends and calm yourself down before you go into the exam. We’re showing the students we’re positive, we’re here to support them and we’re making the process as easy as we can.”

The operation doesn’t come cheap. Students are transported en masse to the showground six times; three times for their English and maths mocks, so that they can get used to how the system works, and three times in order to sit the real thing.

When all the costs are factored in – from hiring the buses and premises to recruiting invigilators and creating an IT system to register students as they arrive – the overall bill comes to around £50,000.

Counting the cost

Next year, given another expected increase in the numbers of students who will be taking GCSE resits, the college may instead be forced to cancel classes and give over its entire city centre campus to offer enough space for all the students to sit these exams.

And even getting a student to turn up is no guarantee they will actually complete the exam. One student is overcome with nerves and insists she is too anxious to take the paper. She is persuaded by her teachers to wait until the others have finished, so that she can at least sit at her desk and read the question paper to give her some experience of exam conditions in preparation for next year.

But other learners are determined to get this monkey off their back, whatever it takes. Many face journeys of an hour or more by public transport just to get to Norwich; one candidate has come all the way from Peterborough for today’s exam.

Last year, one student with a two-week-old baby rang the college in a panic the night before the exam: her babysitter was no longer available. “We just told her to bring the baby,” Goodman recalls. “She let us all babysit while she sat the exam. The baby was only two weeks old – she was so cute.”

“We also had somebody about to give birth,” principal Corrienne Peasgood adds. “She had to come out of the exam hall a couple of times – she got too hot. She was leaning against the rail and breathing deeply to get as much cool air in as possible, then she went back in. We were getting a bit nervous at that point. But she was so determined.”

In the end, the student was able to complete the paper without incident. But this just goes to show how important some students perceive a C grade to be.

“It is critical,” Peasgood says. “For some of them, they’ve only got one shot at it, because they’re doing an access qualification alongside it, and they need it for their higher education progression. The pressure on them is absolutely enormous.”

Accordingly, the preparation behind the exodus to the showground site is meticulous. “The police are aware we’re doing the exam here,” Peasgood says. “If there were an accident on the A47 on the way here, we would have to put those students into quarantine until they could sit the exam. And the chief constable would be getting a phone call – all the contingencies are in place.”

But no matter how thorough the preparation, staff know to expect the unexpected. Just last week, Goodman ended up accidentally phoning the mobile of Diana Keyzor, the curriculum programme manager for the GEM school, while she was in the hall in the middle of an exam.

“I couldn’t work out how to switch it off quickly,” she explains.

Goodman laughs. “She opened the fire exit door and just lobbed the phone out!”

Even before students get anywhere near the exam hall, staff make a real effort to try to make the college environment as different as possible to the classroom setting that students encountered at school.

“More and more we say to all of our teachers, ‘Don’t make your classrooms look like classrooms. Run your lesson like a board meeting so it’s different, it’s unusual. Take them out of what they’re used to and make it as much like the workplace as you possibly can’,” says Goodman.

“When you take students out of a construction workshop into the classroom, they revert to being at school. If you put them in what they see as a work environment rather than a classroom, you get workplace behaviours.”

But the most crucial aspect of motivating students is always maintaining high standards, Peasgood explains. “If we don’t have high expectations of students and ourselves, why should they? It’s about pushing all the time and raising the bar. We’re all in it together.”

Goodman laughs again. “If it was easy, they would all have GCSEs – and we wouldn’t have jobs. The fact that it’s challenging is why we’re all here.”

@stephenexley

This is an article from the 24 June edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley is a freelance writer, director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust and former FE editor at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @stephenexley

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