Increasingly, the job security of school leaders and senior staff rests predominantly on exam results. Although education should be viewed as a long-term process and context has an important role to play, the truth is that a student's grades will determine many more fates in a school than just their own.
The temptation for school leaders is to concentrate on the years of education leading up to an exam to ensure that everything is in place for results to be maximised. But you would do well to give extra thought to the exam season itself.
First, select the right examinations officer. The best idea is to choose someone who is skilled at getting the detail right. When done well, the job is often a person's only task - a recent retiree who is happy to work part-time might be a good choice.
The next task is to choose the right exams and exam boards. The latter vary greatly, so ensure that you investigate relative success rates, feedback and options that may suit particular students. Expect each faculty to justify its board preference.
Third, ensure that staff have examiner experience. Too many schools suffer because they are not aware of marking idiosyncrasies in particular subjects. It is essential that staff pay attention to exam board reports and attend meetings where the features of the best and worst candidates are elaborated. But there is nothing better than having someone with current (or very recent) experience of being an external examiner.
You should also ask colleagues for ideas that can be used to boost performance. To get you started, we present our own top 20 strategies:
- Don't run open revision courses. Give students an individual timetable and inform their parents. Ensure that revision classes are short and students are rewarded with sweets or treats during sessions.
- Get famous alumni to write letters wishing the students luck and place these on an "inspiration" wall.
- Make sure you get parents on board. Furnish them with revision tips and give them sample questions and answers so they can help students at home.
- Put personalised messages for different students on the school's e-learning platform.
- Have separate assemblies for different groups - for example, top-grade students versus those with lower predictions.
- Put revision tips up in classrooms and communal areas.
- Give the weakest students extra lessons with the best teachers in the months leading up to the exam.
- Encourage students to revise with appropriate background music.
- Have a detailed debrief after mock exams.
- Organise a trip away that mixes revision with outdoor activities.
- Put past papers, mark schemes and examiners' reports on your e-learning platform.
- Make sure it is the head of year, rather than an unfamiliar face, who welcomes students to the hall and starts the exam.
- Before students' first exam, give them a motivational talk.
- Provide breakfast on exam days.
- Provide water and carefully selected sweets in exams.
- If possible, run internal exams in the same format as external ones so that students get used to the environment.
- On the morning of the exam, phone or text students who are unlikely to turn up. Pick them up if necessary.
- Use model answers as part of revision and coaching where appropriate. In revision groups, don't mix A* candidates with those expected to get Fs.
- Have a budget for re-marks and focus on the key marginal candidates. Don't hesitate to re-mark a whole set's work.
- Select an inspirational athlete whose story of discipline and determination will motivate students. Display these "essential features of success" on tutor room walls.
A final tip is based on what cognitive scientists call context-dependent memory - the idea that the best place to remember something is where you first learned it. So revision for maths, English, history and so on could take place in the exam hall with artefacts (for example, clocks or pictures) around as visual cues to aid recall.
Follow even some of these ideas and you can watch your exam results soar.
This is an edited version of the chapter "E is for Examinations" from The A-Z of School Improvement: principles and practice by David Woods and Tim Brighouse, published by Bloomsbury at pound;24.99. To claim your TES subscriber 20 per cent discount, visit www.bloomsbury.comeducation and use the code GLR 8RW