Mock heroics

18th January 2008 at 00:00
One thing that middle leaders learn early on in their career is that each new term brings a fresh crop of worries. Some people may call them challenges, but if you are a subject leader in a secondary school, the reality is that worry is probably the more accurate description.

January is when mock exams normally take place and the serious chase for coursework begins. If you think it is a crushing time for the students, then you are off beam by a mile. I find that the majority of our teenage population are so laid back after Christmas that "horizontal" is too kind a definition; "unconscious" is probably a better word.

Let's leave the coursework for another column. After all, it is unlikely that your students will share your sense of urgency, and "mocks" are a more immediate signpost of whether panic is a justifiable emotion.

New subject leaders often fall into a pit of despair when they gather the mock results and find them horribly short of target. But more mature middle managers are usually better at reminding themselves that although this may be a bit of a wake-up call for their staff, it is, more importantly, an excellent blast in the ear for those comatose students who thought they were heading for success without so much as applying a brain cell.

A poor mock grade often does wonders for the slacker, the cruiser and the merely "switched off". And when results are reported to parents, it often doubles the effect and galvanises their offspring into some kind of action - at last.

As ever, your job will be to steady the ship. Take care of your staff first. When they mark some of the inane answers that appear on mock scripts, they are likely to feel they have taught their classes nothing. It's a common reaction.

Encourage your staff to mark the papers with insightful comments for students to read, and to make their own notes about obvious weaknesses. Remind them that key learning will take place over the next four or five months and that the majority of teenagers are masters of the last-minute push. The students need to be shown that this term they are starting to enter the final straight.

Next, figure out strategies for underachieving students. Have a range at your disposal - special reports, mentoring sessions, after-school classes, parental involvement, dropping them from teams and all things they hold dear. Be tough on some, be kind on some and be absolutely persistent with all.

What is most needed at this somewhat fragile time of year is a cool nerve. Mock exams? Smile wryly at the irony of the word, but make sure it is you who has the last laugh.

Lindy Barclay, Deputy head at Redbridge Community School in Southampton.

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