GCSEs 2021: What should we teach our exam cohorts now?

Students return on 8 March but teachers are still in the dark on GCSE assessment – here one teacher shares her plans

Laura May Rowlands

GCSEs 2021: How can teachers prepare students for assessement when schools reopen?

At long last, we finally know how GCSEs are going to be awarded this year. Except...we don't, do we?

We still aren’t clear how these assessments will work; all we have is the assertion that teachers will need to use a mix of coursework, in-class tests, mock exams and exam board materials. 

Now teachers, heads of department, leaders and headteachers are facing a deluge of enquiries from worried parents and students. But we still have no concrete information for them.

How and when assessments will happen, as well as the quantity of evidence that will need to be provided, are unanswerable questions at this point. We just have to wait for the guidance from the exam boards.

GCSEs 2021: How to prepare students for assessment

Planning for mocks and gathering evidence might all be unnecessary. We need to be cautious and hold the line. So how can we do this without losing our heads?

1. Focus on the familiar

We cannot allow the failings of the government to impact on our students any more than they already have. It is down to us, as teachers, to be the calm in the storm for our students.

When they return, after 12 months of uncertainty and more on the horizon, we owe it to them to reignite their love of learning. That can only come through the familiarity of routine, not a hasty flight through all the things we think they don’t know.

2. Forget about exams for now

I found myself giving redundant feedback to one of my star students this week: that her work was great, but was too detailed for an 8-mark analysis question and she needed to conserve time for the higher-tariff question. I felt foolish after I re-read it to myself, because she won’t be sitting an 8-mark question in that way.

We do know that exam board-provided assessments won’t have to be sat in timed conditions. So it would have been much better to have focused on the quality of the work in front of me, free from exam technique.

Now we've shaken off the shackles of exams, we can think about what knowledge we want our students to leave school with. Let's focus on that. 

3. Go low-stakes with diagnostics

We know that we are only going to be assessing students on what has been taught. Therefore, it is down to us to be careful and take a diagnostic approach.

This emphatically does not mean sitting endless exam-style assessments. Instead, we should be using a mix of low-stakes assessments – multiple-choice quizzes, mind maps, short-answer questions, even open-book essays – to help us work out which learning we need to revisit.

We won’t know the rules of the game we are playing for weeks yet. So we need to hold the line. When all is said and done, it is about the learning. That can still happen. We owe it to our students to ensure that this is so.

Laura May Rowlands is head of English in a secondary school in Hampshire

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