Strategy to make the grade

2nd February 2007 at 00:00
The dividing line between washing pots or whipping up posh meals could be GCSE grades. John Atkinson reports on a how mock exams focus pupils' on the real thing

You can feel the apprehension in the air as you walk into the main hall.

Pupils gather in groups, nervously chatting, biting nails or preparing for the joy of success or sorrow of missed opportunities. It's a sight we've all witnessed many times. However, these pupils are not in jeans and T-shirts, tans fresh from sunny holidays. They are in uniform, clothed in thick coats against a cold winter morning, but still awaiting important exam results.

This year, Year 11 pupils at Bingley grammar school, an 11-19 Yorkshire comprehensive, took their mock exams in November - earlier than usual. The tests, they knew, were "pretend" but they understood how important they were for gauging their performance and how they could be used to improve their real GCSE results.

Exams sat, the start of each lesson was punctuated with, "Sir, what did I get?" and, "Miss, did I do OK?". However, staff were under strict instructions from Andy Goulty, deputy headteacher and the creator of mock results day, not to give out any information: all would be revealed two weeks later.

Then the big day arrived. The whole senior leadership team, including Chris Taylor, the head, counselled Year 11 as if this was the real deal. Dreams were dashed or made on the strength of these results. Places in sixth form or colleges, apprenticeships or work placements were won or lost.

Each pupil knew that they had some months to improve on or solidify their grades. Each counselling session finished with the proactive and positive question: "What are YOU going to do over the coming months?"

Each pupil had an opinion, and all were positive. Phil Timmins, with 5Cs, 2Ds and an E, put it simply: "I don't want to be looking at these grades in the summer." Many underachievers felt the same and have been shocked into action.

Adam Pitts, with 2As, 3Cs and 2Ds, spoke for many when he said: "You can't do anything about the feedback in the summer so it's time to work on it now." This suggested that speaking with students as if it were the real thing, rather than a simple set of letters given in class, gave them "a true idea of what it would be like".

But what of the students who did not do nearly as well as they wanted? Adam Peel, who hopes to become a chef, achieved only one C grade and he was not looking forward to his interview. Andy Goulty told him: "With these results in the summer, you'll be washing pots not doing the cooking," he explained.

A miserable Adam perked up as the counselling gave him specific targets, areas to improve and strategies to follow for better grades in the summer.

By the end of the short session, they were discussing chef qualifications, what grades would be needed and, importantly for Adam, what car the school's head chef drives. He has a long way to go but now he has a chance to reach the grades he needs.

But this was not just a "kick up the bum" for students who were not flying high.

Jack Warren, who picked up A*s, As and Bs, found it a rewarding and important experience too; he prepared for the mocks as if they were the real thing and the results day showed him that he was "on the right track, not doing anything particularly wrong and preparing in the right way". With these results, he could follow his plan to study physics and maths at A-level.

Pupils' nerves were palpable. Queueing for results, Callum Gage said: "I want to be an actor. So I need my Cs in English, maths and drama to move up into the sixth form. I think I'll be close but I don't think I'll be quite there. I'll make it in the summer, though. I know I'll make it this summer."

The staff felt it was very successful, too, despite some initial scepticism. "It's the look on their faces which shows the impact today has had," said assistant head Luke Weston. "The list of all their grades, with their target grades just above, puts their performances into perspective.

They can see, at a glance, how we think they should have performed and how they actually did."

Bingley grammar now has a new tradition, which will give students experience not only of the exams but of the feelings of elation, excitement and nervousness of results day.

The school will let them know, in no uncertain terms, what their results mean for their futures and it will continue to focus their minds on the big day because many "want to get handed better grades" and mock results day will help them do that John Atkinson is an English teacher at Bingley grammar school, an 11-19 comprehensive near Bradford

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