Over the past week, Flea has received most of her mock exams GCSE results and my over-riding emotion is… relief.
My teenager is a bright girl. She has an amazing memory and she’s smart, and the sort of person you’d think would be great at exams. But over five years of secondary school, Flea has had a series of disasters.
Coping with Mock Exams Stress
Flea’s undoing has mostly been exam nerves. When she went to senior school and experienced her first formal “exam week”, I took the school’s advice on revision to heart and had Flea spend two weeks working through revision books.
Rather than help Flea feel prepared, though, it just made her feel incredibly overwhelmed. She became totally stressed and anxious. She blew the exams and ended up seriously stressed in any exam situation for the next few years. Exams were sometimes okay, but frequently terrible experiences.
I spent a lot of energy in Year 8, 9 and 10 trying to manage Flea’s exam stress. There have been lots of chats about how the marks don’t really matter like you think they do. That nobody loves you any less because you don’t get an A in chemistry. That by the time you’re 18, you won’t even remember what you got in your second year French test.
To help Flea gain a bit of control over a difficult situation, I let Flea set her own timetable and approach for revision. It hasn’t always worked out brilliantly. Like the time Flea decided her notes should be based on an “aesthetic” she’d seen on YouTube. This seemed to involve spending hours making one beautiful page of notes. That did not work out brilliantly.
When Mocks aren’t Mocks
A laid-back approach to exams is fantastic until your kids get a little older and they’re studying for GCSEs in the middle of a pandemic. Because now you are both very aware that if your child winds up missing her GCSEs, those mocks will become “real” grades.
Flea is hoping to apply to a specialist A-level programme for potential law students in an academically selective sixth form. As part of her application, she needs to supply mock grades that (hopefully) show she is capable of hitting a target number of GCSEs at grade 7 or above.
Having a goal in mind meant that Flea was much more motivated than in previous years. I’ve written in more detail about how we approached supporting Flea’s revision and when to start GCSE revision but the basic philosophy was “little and often”.
Flea spent an hour a day from June to August just reading through things, making notes on topics she’d missed. From the second half of September, she did a concentrated four-week revision programme, making index cards, doing practice papers and creating essay plans. It meant by the time mocks came around, Flea felt prepared and (for the first time) approached a set of exams feeling nervous but not panicked.
Mock GCSE Results
Results from the mock exams have come in quite slowly. The school seems to be setting its own grade boundaries in some subjects, based on how the whole year has performed. In other subjects, they used last summer’s papers and grade boundaries.
Flea has done fine. Maths is my teen’s nemesis, but she has met her expected grade, missing out on a higher grade by just one mark. In all her other subjects, she’s beaten her predicted grade, in some cases by two or three grades. If she gets the same grades in GCSE, she will easily qualify for the A-Level programme that she wants to do.
I hope it isn’t too smug parent of me, but I’m just really, really happy for Flea.
Nothing breaks your heart like seeing your child mess up exams and ask you how and when they became stupid, because they used to think they were clever. Then messing up exams a second time and being so traumatised by the whole experience they ended up moving schools halfway through Year 8.
There was a time when I thought Flea might never be able to get through an exam without her mind going blank from panic. And I get to enjoy this feeling for, ooh, about five minutes. Because apparently this year schools are setting two whole sets of mock exams.
Lord help us.
I do understand that the government has said that if a child misses their exam in May, and also needs to miss a catch-up exam in July, that their mock grade will become their “real” grade. But realistically, how many students are likely to miss exams in BOTH May and July?
Part of me thinks it’s fine. After all, more practice and more attempts is good for kids. And there’s a general wisdom that each set of exams sees grades go up, so this is good news.
But I can’t help but worry for the children who, like Flea, find exams stressful and emotionally difficult. Three sets of exams in the space of six months? It’s a lot.
I also worry that in preparing for mocks, students are wasting time that could be devoted to much-needed teaching. After all, where is the sense in pushing back exams by three weeks to allow for more classroom teaching in May, if you’re just going to ask schools to spend an extra four weeks preparing and marking a second set of exams?
Top Tips for Mocks
I guess we will just hope that things continue to go well, and Flea takes the second mocks in her stride. I’ve told her not to worry too much about them, but just to treat them as another practice paper in a long line of practice papers.
If you have a child in secondary school who does not enjoy exams, I can really relate to that feeling. Here are the tips that have worked for Flea this year:
- Little and often. If a teen is reading something over a period of weeks, it does gradually sink in and that knowledge carries them a long way. We invested in audio books for history to help bring some of the stories to life, and I think it helped.
- Different types of learning: Alongside revision books, I’ve realised that Flea really benefits from practice papers, since most of her issue is confidence rather than knowledge. We’ve also bought audio books and watched film adaptations and had lots of family discussions about the topics she’s learning.
- It takes a village. My friend Sarah is a French teacher and spent an hour a week for six weeks helping Flea over Zoom. My friend Kirstie has a son who is a science whizz, who spent an hour online with Flea talking her through a particularly tough topic in quantitative chemistry. If you have people around who can help, then make the most of that.
- Practice makes perfect. In the lead up to exams, doing timed practice papers helped Flea enormously by giving her realistic practice and confidence. We also downloaded mark schemes and Flea marked her own papers. Knowing that she’d scored a 6 or a 7 in a practice paper helped Flea feel a lot more confident about the real exams.