Which school students sit which GCSEs? What grades are achieved? Relevant questions, but here’s another one: which GCSEs engage candidates the most? Of course the ideal is that every second between “You may begin” and “Pens down”, candidates have their heads down working hard. But in a school with a large, varied intake, the attention of some students strays easily, and a few are reluctant even to attempt the exam paper. So, which exams have the most chance of engaging them?
Arriving to supervise a large Year 10 RE exam recently, I found fellow invigilators – perhaps remembering boring RE lessons from their own schooldays – concerned that a lot of students would opt out. But I was struck by how quickly every student opened the paper and got to work. A large majority kept writing right up to the end – a tribute to their teachers, and also to the fact that RE asks for their views, so there should always be something they can write.
With English exams, which also ask for longer written answers, the questions focus on what an author is trying to say, and it’s less easy to frame an answer if you haven’t learnt a few facts and don’t easily think analytically. The Shakespeare SATS were the “worst” from that point of view, where despite excellent teaching and preparation, once in the exam hall, quite a lot of students opted out and barely attempted the paper.
Maths and science exams have a high level of engagement for the first half of the exam, but then heads go up when students have done all the questions they think they can answer.
The amount of time students spend with their heads down at work on the exam paper may or may not correlate with the mark they get. Those who mark the RE papers may say that what’s written fails to answer the question. An A* maths student may complete their paper halfway through the exam, and sit with head up for the rest of the time.
I’m not sure whether any of this means anything, but it is an intriguing way of thinking about exams, especially for the invigilator standing watching!