It’s that time of year: the time when most secondary school teachers are marking – or will soon be marking – what were once known as mock exams. Now known as pre-public examinations (PPEs), the marking of these exams will take ages; the feedback even longer. But we want our pupils to succeed so we press on despite being near the end of an exhausting term.
The real problem with PPEs is the aftermath: the desperate need to appear to be doing something about "underachieving" pupils: the fear-driven compulsion to run revision sessions before school, at lunchtime, after school and – in some schools – even on Saturdays.
Employers’ concerns over school leavers lacking basic skills have been well publicised. These concerns refer not only to numeracy and literacy, but also include less easy to measure skills, such as self-management and grit. What are we doing to address these concerns? The way we approach PPEs certainly does nothing to help matters.
'Someone else will pick up the pieces'
We do our pupils a disservice by generating lists of those who require intervention based purely on the data, not on our judgement. Other than the obvious injustice of holding them to an arbitrary target – which has the core purpose of measuring the school, not the pupil – the message that these interventions give to our pupils is "someone will do it for you".
Assuming a pupil did poorly in their PPE due to lack of revision (perhaps the most common reason), what we are telling them is that it’s OK to be lazy, as someone else will pick up the pieces. Worse still, at many schools it is perfectly normal for school leaders to escort pupils to revision sessions to avoid them running off after school, further reducing that young person’s sense of responsibility.
Years of "intervention" will inevitably lead pupils to an attitude of disillusionment and potentially to disaster in the workplace, when they are unable to shoulder responsibility for themselves.
So, what can we do instead?
Currently, most intervention sessions are coerced, in that the pupils must attend "or else". I believe schools should aim to switch to a surgery-style approach in which a teacher leaves their door open at a particular time for pupils who need help on a specific concept. Requests for help with the entire subject would indicate that the pupil had made no attempt themselves. If we really want what’s best for our kids, we should turn these pupils away until they have pinpointed specific areas that they need support with.
If a teacher’s professional judgement tells them that a pupil has underachieved due to a lack of revision rather than a lack of ability, then the problem is more likely to be laziness than with a lack of understanding of subject content, in which case the child needs motivating, not badgering.
'Dangerous sense of self-entitlement'
Motivation, when discussed at schools, is often simply an "add on". But if we spent more time and resources getting pupils to determine what cause or belief drives them, or simply promoting the benefits of a good education, we would make a greater contribution to their life chances and workplace success than by simply continuing to force them to revise.
Let’s not rob our children of grit. Life requires it. Without it, you are left with nothing but a dangerous sense of self-entitlement.
“Keep reading it until you understand it” were the words of my philosophy teacher when I was revising at school. Perhaps he had a point.
Omar Akbar is a teacher and author of The (Un)official Teacher’s Manual: What they don’t teach you in training