Inside Exams

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Teacher Craig Barton is back with series two of Inside Exams, the podcast that gives you an access all areas pass to snoop around behind the scenes at AQA.

He’ll be meeting the people who write and mark your students’ exams, as well as pioneering teachers, to get answers to all the questions you ponder throughout the school day.

© AQA 2019

Creating assessments: taking stock and setting mocks

Series two
Episode five | 13 January 2020

Who writes exam questions? Craig Barton talks to AQA’s Assessment Banking Manager, Oli Woodfield, and Engagement and Communications Lead, Jenni Midgley about how papers are created. He also speaks to science teacher Ellie Upton about how she creates mocks in school.

Featured in this podcast

Craig Barton – Maths teacher, podcaster and author

Jenni Midgley – AQA Engagement and Communications Lead

Oli Woodfield – AQA Assessment Banking Manager

Ellie Upton – a science teacher at Chace Community School in Enfield

Episode resources

Visit Exampro to find out more about creating tests from previous question papers.

Craig Barton: Hello, and welcome to Inside Exams with me, Craig Barton. I’ve got 15 years of experience as a maths teacher but, I’ll be honest, exams remain a bit of a mystery. This is the podcast that demystifies assessments and qualifications by hearing from the people who create them.

I’ve been meeting fellow teachers to ask which parts of the exam process you particularly want clarification on.

Carl Thomas: Hi, my name’s Carl Thomas, I’m head of engineering and technology. My question is, who writes the papers and are they all written by one person?

Craig Barton: Carl, you’re right to ask that question because, as far as I’m aware, the answer’s actually changed pretty recently. There are new Ofqual regulations, their aim is to make the paper production process more robust than ever.

Now, the aim is for loads of writers to produce loads of questions and combine them into papers, fittingly, when the time comes.

As an assessment banking manager, Oli Woodfield is the man in charge of stockpiling questions, and Jenni Midgley is one of AQA’s engagement and communications leads.

I’m going to meet them to find out how their work is creating secure and reliable assessments.

Okay, Jenni, I’m going to come to you straight off. Now, I believe the question paper production process is changing, am I right? Why is it changing? And, what are the changes?

Jenni: You’re right, it is changing or it has changed, so we’re currently now into 2021 production for the –

Craig Barton: Wow.

Jenni: – summer series. Yes. And for that series we’ve had to change various ways in which we create our question papers, for a couple of reasons.

We’re always continuously improving our processes so there’s no reason why we wouldn’t always be reviewing and ensuring that the way we create papers protects the quality for students, but there is a couple of new Ofqual conditions.

Craig Barton: Okay.

Jenni: So they’re regulatory conditions.

Craig Barton: Okay.

Jenni: The biggy being G4, which is one of the reasons I work at AQA now, and G4 is all around the confidentiality of assessments.

Craig Barton: Okay.

Jenni: And making sure we can protect that confidentiality and ensure that no serving teacher knows what’s on any whole assessment on the day of an exam.

Craig Barton: Okay. So what did it used to be? If maybe I come to Oli on this one; was it the case that teachers would write whole exams in the past?

Oli: Yes, that’s essentially correct, they’d go through various quality checks, and other teachers would be involved in looking at that and making amendments right up until it’s signed off.  And then into the summer exam series when they take it forward and they’ll maybe edit the mark scheme to take into account student responses that perhaps not... so it’s a very sort of linear approach in that respect.

Craig Barton: Which makes a lot of sense, right?  Because I mean speaking from a maths teacher, as a maths teacher, I can kind of see how with a maths paper loads of different people writing different bits doesn’t matter too much, but I’d imagine with another subject it’s quite important to get a kind of flow throughout the paper, so having one teacher writing it, I guess, was a bit easier, was it or not?

Oli: I think when you look at that, and I guess that’s coming from sort of the student experience –

Craig Barton: Yes, yes.

Oli: is what you’re referring to there.  So that is a very important factor that we need to look at and ensure that not just the sort of flow of it but also how it’s written, the language used, that the construct that we’re assessing is actually clear for them, and that their experience is a good one. I guess, ultimately, that the paper is valid.

Craig Barton:  Teachers are surely the best people to be writing this, writing the exams, because they’re teaching the content and so…

Oli: You’re absolutely right, and throughout all of this, in the build up to the introduction of the new regulations, AQA were quite forthright in lobbying that teachers should be involved –

Craig Barton: Mm.

Oli: – in the production of assessment materials. It’s imperative that teachers’ experience in the classroom is current, relevant and up to date. Ultimately, we want the assessments to be as good as they can be and current, in terms of what’s being taught and, actually, things in the classroom change quite frequently so it’s important that teachers remain relevant in that.

Craig Barton: How do you manage it, then, with the need to get teachers involved but then we’ve got G4?

Jenni: Yes, and I guess I was looking at Oli then and nodding loads, because I don’t think that position’s changed at AQA, we still definitely, we always want teachers involved. So, actually, the programme that we work on, there’s a couple of programmes actually, which sit around the teams who are creating the papers, to support them during times like this when you’ve got to make some changes because of new regulation or whatever that might be, we’ve been working really hard.

And there’s teams across AQA, including teachers, who write exams, and examiners have all… we’ve all been working in collaboration for, like, the last year, at least, since the regulation came… we knew it was going to happen, there’s been loads of work done to find ways that we make sure teachers are still involved, and that we just mitigate against any risk.

So it’s sort of keeping the human element –

Craig Barton: Yes.

Jenni: – in there because it’s so, so important to the quality of the exam and the student experience, but, at the same time, trying to reduce the element of risk that come –

Craig Barton:Yes.

Jenni: – that’s associated with having a human involved.

Craig Barton:So how do you do it?

Oli:Well, there’s a few different things that we’ve been looking at implementing, and it’s all about being, doing it in a controlled fashion over a sort of staggered period of time. We’ve gone about, taken a number of high profile subjects where we’ve produced twice the amount of assessments.

Craig Barton: Oh, okay.

Oli: At question paper level. And then that’s what we’ve done for a previous series, so we’ve got a stock on the shelf, if you like –

Craig Barton: Ah.

Oli: – or a bank of papers there in a certain amount of subjects.  And then we’re looking to a number of other mitigations around G4, which is extending what we’ve done there to other specifications, qualifications.

Craig Barton: Can I just ask you, Oli?

Oli: Yes, of course you can.

Craig Barton: Sorry to interrupt.  Just about these two sets of papers, because this fascinates me, this.  So as a maths teacher, obviously now with the GCSE we’ve got three papers, paper one, paper two, and paper three. I’m assuming it’s not just the case that you can just have one spare paper to chuck into the mix, you’ve got to have the full set of three, right?

Oli: That’s correct, yes, yes.

Craig Barton: Wow. That’s a… and these are complete, ready to go, that goes under as much scrutiny as the ones that the kids already sit, is that right?

Oli: Yes. I mean they both go through exactly the same process in terms of getting those papers to the appropriate standard. This is all around not knowing which set students are going to sit –

Craig Barton: Oh, so –

Oli: - in a series, so.

Craig Barton: Oh, so wait a minute.  So you don’t even know which of these… so let’s say there’s a set A and a set B, you don’t even know which ones the kids are going to get.

Oli: Uh, well –

Craig Barton: Who knows that?

Oli W: Not yet. So that will be chosen internally whether they go forward as a sort of set or a mix and match. But it’s again protecting ourselves but also teachers that have been involved in writing those question papers and mark schemes, so that they don’t know which ones are going to be in a given series. So there’s that element of not knowing exactly what’s going to come up –

Craig Barton: Wow.

Jenni:I think it’s really interesting, because I joined AQA almost a year ago as part of sort of the crew that was brought on board to support with all of this work that Oli’s just described.

Craig Barton: Mm.

Jenni: And that kind of mitigation is huge. So that was the initial stuff we did, sort of quite quickly had to turn it around to make that happen for the summer series that will occur this year.

Craig Barton: Yes.

Jenni: So June this year.  So, actually, once we’d got through that… over that sort of hurdle, we then looked at all the different ways that we might take each of our specifications, how we might approach them differently.

Craig Barton: Okay.

Jenni: Because that was a big undertaking.

Craig Barton: Jenni, can I ask you?

Jenni: Mm.

Craig Barton:So we’ve spoken on Inside Exams, both in season one and also in season two, just how flipping hard it is to write these exam papers, like everyone I speak to it adds a new degree of complexity to it; well, we’ve got the assessment objectives, we’ve got the line spacing, we’ve got the language, it’s all kicking off.

So do these changes that you’re talking about here, do they make that an easier or a more difficult thing to put an exam together?

Jenni: Oh, well the hope is easier. It might not be immediately easier but, of course, you know, we keep saying the word futureproof, which we don’t really say lightly, but the whole point of us making changes that we think will benefit –

Craig Barton: Yes.

Jenni: – is that we want to make things easier for people to write them.

Craig Barton:Mm.

Jenni: So one thing I found really interesting, when I started at AQA, was that said teachers are so … they’re as passionate as, you know, everyone who works internally at AQA –

Craig Barton:Sure.

Jenni:- around ensuring that we produce something really great, which I think always comes through, like that’s why I wanted to work for AQA in the first place.  However they work in so many different ways with AQA, so they might work in creating the papers, they might also do some marking in the summer.

So we’ve got this great resource of people and we want to make sure that when we make changes like this they work for them as well.

Craig Barton:Mm.

Jenni M:So I think we’ve kind of tried to adopt an approach that is quite inclusive and draws them into the conversation before we actually do something.  So one would call that engagement, which is basically just talking to people as opposed to telling them.

Craig Barton:Yes, it seems to me, the message I’m hearing, is that these changes are potentially a really good thing in terms of both the security and integrity of exams, but also the wider thing of potentially bringing more teachers into the writing process, which can only be a good thing.

So, thank you so much for your time today, it’s been absolutely fascinating.

Jenni M:Thank you.

Oli W:Thank you.

Craig Barton:It’s not just exam boards that create question papers.  Every year we all spend time putting mock exams together to help prepare our students for the real thing.  So, how can we make them just as robust as exam boards make theirs?

Ellie Upton is a science teacher.  She was also head of science for 12 years, and an assistant principal, too.  And I’m keen to find out whether she feels the principles Oli and Jenni talked about are important in piecing together mocks too.

Right, Ellie, we’re going deep to start things off here.  What’s the purpose of a mock exam, for you?

Ellie Upton:In essence, it’s a practise exam.  It’s designed to be very much like the real thing as possible.  For the student, it’s going to give the student a good idea of actually what to expect.  It’s useful practise in time management.  It motivates students to start the revision early, as obviously the further away an event is the less impact it’s going to have on the student.  And some exams, they might feel an absolute lifetime away for some teenagers.  So without mock exams they might not start work in revising until Easter.  Allow students to focus their attention and effort earlier.

It enables what is known as distributed practise, i.e. revision little and often.  Revisiting concepts over a longer period of time as opposed to cramming the night before.

And this enables students to retain information in their long term memory.  Because we know cramming can work in that students can hold information for short periods of time, however information won’t be established in long term memory, and it becomes temporary.

Craig Barton:Can I just … just on that, because that’s a big one that, this distributed practise, isn’t it?

Ellie Upton:Yes.

Craig Barton:How do you get the kids on board with that?  How do you sell them on the dream of that?  Because I get kids, and I don’t know if it’s the same as you, they’re so chilled out the whole year; relax, sir, I’ve got it sorted, I’ll revise closer to the exam.  And then they cram it all in and it’s an absolute nightmare.

So, how do you sell them on the dream that distributed practise is so important?

Ellie Upton:I mean what we do is we generally test them quite regularly.

Craig Barton:Mm.

Ellie Upton:We do a lot of what is called walking, talking mocks.

Craig Barton:Tell me about those, yes.

Ellie Upton:Um, well what walking, talking mocks actually are is where you actually put the students, one hour a week, in the exam setting.  So for us that would be the exam hall.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:And it literally involves giving students an A4 sheet of information, where you talk the children through, you’ve got to visualise, you’ve got the projector, and then once you’ve done that you get the kids to do like a flashcard.

Craig Barton:Oh, right.

Ellie Upton:And then once they’ve produced that flashcard, you give them two questions, which we take off the exam pro, and then they do that under exam conditions.

Craig Barton:Ah.

Ellie Upton:And then they put that together.  And then throughout the year they have this … they build up like a portfolio of revision, and when we test them regularly they’re able to use that portfolio and actually they see how well it works.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:And it’s brilliant because the kids have something.  They actually have like a hard portfolio that they can use.

Craig Barton:I see.  Right, I’ll tell you what I’m interested in here, Ellie.  I want you to take me through, go into as much detail as you like, how you actually put one of these mock exams together?  Because I’ve struggled with this, you know, and I’ve … I tend to do it on a bit of an ad hoc basis, I’ll grab a question from here, question from there, and so on.  But having spoken to AQA and been thinking a lot about assessment design across these two series, I’m not so sure I’ve been doing the right thing.

So talk me through what … how would you put a mock exam together?  What’s the first thing you’re thinking about?

Ellie Upton:Usually, the first thing that we look at is we look at the secure material on the EAQA.

Craig Barton:Right, okay.

Ellie Upton:But, unfortunately, you do get people that will access that material and then they share it.

Craig Barton:Oh, like fellow teachers or -?

Ellie Upton:Fellow teachers.  Unfortunately, you have the ones that, I don’t know why they do it, but they put it there, they put it out to students who upload it.

Craig Barton:And this is from other schools, right, and it appears on Twitter and –

Ellie Upton:It is, yes, it appears on that.  You Google it, you can find it on the internet.  So it does take a lot of work.  So what we tend to do –

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:- is we do several things.  Sometimes we use them straight from the restricted material.

Craig Barton:Right.

Ellie Upton:If we’re going to surprise the children with their mock exam.

Craig Barton:Like a complete paper put together –

Ellie Upton:A complete paper.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton: Yes.  But what we do is we quite often will change it, adapt it.

Craig Barton:Okay.

Ellie Upton:So we might take one of the longer, extended answer questions –

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:- extended writing, and then change it for another.

Craig Barton:Ah.

Ellie Upton:We might change the odd question.  And, again, that’s quite useful because it really highlights those who’ve had access to the mark schemes.

Craig Barton:That’s … right, so this is with the sole purpose, this is kind of chopping and changing.  This is to prevent any students who’ve seen the entire paper and kind of, essentially, learnt it ready to regurgitate it parrot fashion, it’s to catch those out.

Well, what … how do you know when you see a student paper that this has happened?

Ellie Upton:It can almost be paraphrased.  You almost have points like has the student included … or include two of these following points, and then the students will include all of them.

Craig Barton:Oh, yes, that’s a warning sign.

Ellie Upton:So un … yes, it is a bit of a warning.  But some are clever and they will use the mocks but –

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:And, occasionally, you know, students will actually write the wrong answer in the wrong space where they’ve actually learnt the papers, the mark schemes, parrot fashion.

Craig Barton:Oh, you are joking.

Ellie Upton:Oh, no, we’ve had that.  So what we try to do is we try to adapt them somewhat.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:What we will do is occasionally we use different exams for a different series.

Craig Barton:Okay.

Ellie Upton:But again the students can actually get access to those, which is really useful.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:It’s good the students can access past papers.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:So what we do is we take some of them off exam pro.

Craig Barton:Okay.

Ellie Upton:Which is a really, really useful tool.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:And we substitute them.

Craig Barton:Ah.

Ellie Upton:And we swap them about.  And the main thing is making that exam as real as possible for our students.

Craig Barton:Mm.

Ellie Upton:So that will be the first mock we do.

Craig Barton:Is it … just, I’m really sorry to interrupt you, Ellie.  It’s fascinating this, isn’t it?  I find this trade-off myself, because you want kids to have access to as much material as possible because kids, like practising exams is super useful for them, as many different questions as they can, is brilliant.  But then you also want to hold back certain ones so that, as you’ve spoken about, they can experience the real exam experience where this material is going to be completely unfamiliar to them.  It’s a real balancing act, isn’t it?

Ellie Upton:It is, yes, it definitely is.  And for that reason sometimes you will even adapt them.  With our department at the moment –

we’re actually producing the six mark questions as practise for them, and sometimes changing some of the older questions that are on the previous specification –

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:- so they sit in line with the new specification.  Because obviously the emphasis has gone a lot from the SPAG.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:You know, spelling, punctuation, grammar.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:To being the different banding patterns, they’re marked very, very differently.

Craig Barton:I see.

Ellie Upton:So we’ve done a lot of work on those, which, again, has been really, really useful.  Sometimes we do pick certain questions with certain command words.

Craig Barton:Okay.

Ellie Upton:And the reason for that is because there are certain command words that students do struggle with, and therefore –

Craig Barton:Mm.  Can you give us an example of some of them?

Ellie Upton:Summarise, or –

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:- they all know describe and explain.

Craig Barton:Yes, okay.

Ellie Upton:Because they’ve been taught that from when they’re younger.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:But it’s when they get a little bit more technical and they need –

Craig Barton:Summarise, is an interesting one that, isn’t it?

Ellie Upton:Yes.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:Yes, so yes, there’s so many that they will struggle over.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:And for that reason, we tend to look at what command words that students have particularly struggled with.

Craig Barton:Ah.

Ellie Upton:I mean in all our classrooms we have the command words on the wall.

Craig Barton:Yes, yes.

Ellie Upton:In every classroom, and what they are, what they mean.  But what … a very clever colleague of mine made a spreadsheet, actually, with all the command words on it.

Craig Barton:Oh, interesting.

Ellie Upton:From the AQA website.

Craig Barton:Interesting, okay.

Ellie Upton:For science, and then they’ve hyperlinked them to exam questions.

Craig Barton:Oh, interesting.

Ellie Upton:For all the past paper exam questions, they link [unintelligible 00:20:00].

Craig Barton:Do you know what?  I’ll tell you what’s fascinating –

Ellie Upton:Yes.

Craig Barton:- about that, is that there’s a danger, isn’t there, that when you think about pulling a mock together, you think purely in terms of topics and concepts.

Ellie Upton:Mm.

Craig Barton:But a command word may mean that a topic that’s actually pretty accessible to the kids, all of a sudden, because of that word, they don’t know how to do that particular question.

Ellie Upton:No.

Craig Barton:So it’s just as important to make sure you’re assessing the command words themselves as it is the topics themselves.

Ellie Upton:Yes, entirely.

Craig Barton:See if you can help me with this, Ellie, because this is the other thing I’ve struggled with.  Having spoken to AQA, it’s blown my mind just how much thought goes into the sequencing of the questions, what question follows what –

Ellie Upton:Mm.

Craig Barton:- making sure as wide of the domain is assessed as possible, there’s not too much emphasis in one subject area compared to another.  Now, when I used to just pick questions, I’ll have a bit of a question from there, one from there, one from there, I wasn’t thinking through all this kind of stuff.  So is there a danger that when we pull apart these papers and start putting in our own questions that we lose a bit of the validity, or is that not as much of a concern?

Ellie Upton:No, it is a concern.  You do have to keep the structure of the exam pretty similar to the real thing.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:I mean what’s really useful for us, actually, is when we do… we use a lot of the Caboodle tests as well.

Craig Barton:Oh, right, okay.

Ellie Upton:For the GC –

Craig Barton:I’m not familiar with that.

Ellie Upton:They’re like end of topic tests with GCSE.

Craig Barton:Right.

Ellie Upton:So we’ve got Caboodle, and they’re quite useful.  And we have our mocks as well.  What we tend to do is we do something called question level analysis.

Craig Barton:Oh, right.

Ellie Upton:So where the subject teacher will actually mark the exam paper –

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:- and then they will actually, on a spreadsheet, write down how many of the questions the students got right, how many students, they got wrong, and we’ll use that information to establish what our students know, what our students don’t know, and we actually share that in exams.

Craig Barton:I see.  So it’s not just like, this kid’s got 70%, this kid’s got 60% -

Ellie Upton:No.

Craig Barton:It’s finer detail than that.

Ellie Upton:It’s finer detail.

Craig Barton:Going back to the question level analysis, once you’ve done one of these, how does that then influence what, how, you would put a subsequent mock exam together?

Ellie Upton:So there’s two things.  Quite often, the question level analysis, obviously we do one for foundation, we do one for the higher paper.

Craig Barton:Mm.

Ellie Upton:That information is usually used to prepare the walking, talking mocks.

Craig Barton:Right, okay.

Ellie Upton:Where they’re only given a couple of questions in the hall, and we target like specific areas of the specification.  However, if there are particular areas, I don’t know, electromagnetism, the students really don’t understand.

Craig Barton:Me neither, so I can relate.

Ellie Upton:Then what we would do is we’d put a question in there, maybe even extended answer questions, and maths in there, to really test our students to make sure that any revision that we’d put in place was actually being effective.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:Whether teaching was being effective.

Craig Barton:I see.  So would it be fair to say that, in that case, following a question level analysis you’re not, in the subsequent like mock exam or walking, talking mock, you’re not looking to cover the entire domain of the science curriculum, you’re focusing in on areas that you know they’ve struggled with.

Ellie Upton:Yes.

Craig Barton:So it’s using these previous results to inform how you put together assessments going forward.  Is that fair?

Ellie Upton:Yes it is.  And what’s also quite useful is when you read the examiners reports.

Craig Barton:Yes, yes.

Ellie Upton: So they’re really, really good.  Because what you don’t want to do is you don’t want your students to fall into the same trap that previous students did.  So I, particularly for A level, I mean I even share that with the students.

Craig Barton:Yes, yes.

Ellie Upton:So my… the homework I set my A level biologists last week involved doing questions, group then marking their questions, reading the examiner’s report at the back.

Craig Barton:Right.

Ellie Upton:Making sure they hadn’t fallen into the same trap, and then what we do is we bring that back, we share our answers, we talk through them, which is really good with an A level class.  With GCSE you have to do that work for them.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:So what we do is we do a lot of sharing practise, so for chemistry last week I put up two answers on the board, there wasn’t names, those answers, they’re actually from the year before.

Craig Barton:Right, yes.

Ellie Upton:Not from the current year.  And then we discuss the marks.  We looked at the examiner’s commentary.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:We said what the students did well, what students didn’t do so well, and then actually we get the students to actually produce a green pen marking for those students, how they would actually improve their grade, what they could do better.

Craig Barton:What do you mean by green pen marking?

Ellie Upton:So what I will do, if I mark an exam, I’ll mark the exam for the students, and a lot of that is ticks and crosses.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:And allocating marks.  What I’ll then do is I will give the students back their papers and then what I will do is I’ll project the mark scheme on the board.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:I’ll talk them through each question.  We’ll break it down to the backbone.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:We’ll talk about the actual content.  We’ll do a little bit of teaching in that.  It can take sometimes two hours to do that with a paper and do it well.

Craig Barton:Wow.  Wow.

Ellie Upton:And it does impact a lot on time.

Craig Barton:Sure.

Ellie Upton:But it is such a useful exercise and the kids get a lot from it.  Because if you’re just hand them back the papers and say, this is your mock exam, this is how well you’ve done.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:It’s not particularly useful.

Craig Barton:Yes, they just look at the score and that’s it, right?

Ellie Upton:That’s what they’re interested in.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:And I purposefully hold back on giving them a grade until after we’ve done that.

Craig Barton:Oh, that’s interesting.

Ellie Upton:Yes.  We talk all about what … how the mark scheme works and how, actually, 70% might be an A one year but it won’t be an A the next year.

Craig Barton:Yes, it could change.

Ellie Upton:But I hold back the grade until we finish that.  And then the students look at the paper more thoroughly, it’s quite a nice tool for the students.

Craig Barton:That’s interesting.  So take me back to this mock creation process.  So you’ve been thinking about the topics that you want to include, informed by the question level analysis and also trends that perhaps you’ve spotted in previous papers, what happens next, practically, how do you put this mock together?  Is it just you, are there other teachers involved, how does that work?

Ellie Upton;When I was a head of science I would work with my key stage co-ordinators.  I wouldn’t work with the whole department.

Craig Barton:Right.  How come?

Ellie Upton:Occasionally, you’ll have teachers … I’m not even sure if it’s a deliberate action on their part –

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:- but sometimes you’ll find people will actually teach to the mock.

Craig Barton:Yes, I’ve been there.  I’ve been there.  It’s hard not to, though, right?  If you know something’s coming up, like how do you get that out of your head, it’s -?

Ellie Upton:It is really, really hard, and it is really, really difficult, and have a revision programme set up in advance where you have the questions that you’re going to cover, you have the content you’re going to cover.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:It covers the specification.  It covers all the points.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:And you keep that.

Craig Barton:Yes, just stick to that.

Ellie Upton:And, you know, it is difficult because the temptation is there –

Craig Barton:Of course.

Ellie Upton:But no, you can’t because you don’t do the children any favours at the end of the day.

Craig Barton:No.

Ellie Upton:It’s not the right thing for them and it loses all validity of the mock; the mock becomes useless.

Craig Barton:Absolutely.

Ellie Upton:The mock is there as a tool to show you what you’ve taught well, what you haven’t taught so well, what topics need to be covered again, and if you give the students the answers … I mean there’s no point in doing the mock.

Craig Barton:No, that’s right.

Ellie Upton:And, you know, with the increasing number of exams in schools, I mean mock exam time is crazy in schools.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:Because you’ve got … I mean for combined science you’ve got six examinations.

Craig Barton:Wow.

Ellie Upton:If we do, in year 11 and year 13 you’re doing three mock periods.

Craig Barton:Oh, is that right?  When do they happen?

Ellie Upton:So you would do them … so quite often you will do the exams end of November, beginning of December.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:And then if the students haven’t done so well you’ll have other mocks at sort of end of January.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:And then quite often you’ll have them again in March.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:So you’ve got that … it’s a balancing act.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:It’s between taking time out from the curriculum –

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:- to ensure that –

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:- you know, you do the mocks and you do them well –

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:- and the rehearsal is in there.  But also allowing enough time to cover the content.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:Because you’ve got so much more content now to the new GCSE’s, they’re so heavy in terms of content, compared to the previous ones.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:So it’s a really fine balancing act.

Craig Barton:I thought the main thing was writing these mocks, but that’s just the start, isn’t it?

Ellie Upton:It is.

Craig Barton:It’s getting the topics right.  It’s getting the command words right.  It’s getting the access arrangements right.  It’s making sure they don’t leak to the kids, they don’t leak to the students.

Ellie Upton:It’s hard.

Craig Barton:It’s unbelievable, isn’t it?

Ellie Upton:Yes.

Craig Barton:Final question, then, Ellie, just on that.  I have a colleague, I won’t name his name here, but he refuses to give his students mock exams, right?  So the first time they sit a GCSE under exam conditions is in the actual GCSE, right?  And his argument is, some of the things we’ve talked about, you can’t write a valid mock, it takes flipping ages to do it, it’s massive removal or reduction of curriculum time because kids are out doing the mocks so they’re not learning.  It’s loads of marking for staff.  It’s making up grade boundaries left, right and centre.  So he says, forget it, let me stick to teaching them as well I can and then they’ll be much better prepared by the time that they sit the exam.

What … I mean I can see you shaking your head, what are you saying to him?

Ellie Upton:Well, I think you’re really … you’re setting the kids up for a huge fall.  Because I mean there are so many benefits are doing a mock exam.  I mean you even have like the shock of the mock, the children aren’t … we call it the shock of the mock because sometimes that’s almost the, I don’t want to say a kick up the backside, but it is.

Craig Barton:Yes, say it.

Ellie Upton:It’s a kick up the backside that the students need to get them revising.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:And, again, if you don’t put them in that situation, if they don’t have that practise, if they don’t have that rehearsal, you don’t know how that child is going to do in a mock.  You can have the best student, an A grade student that is constantly giving you 100% all year round, you put them in that exam, the panic kicks in.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:They can’t cope with being in that particular exam room.  They haven’t had that practise.  They haven’t set up those retrieval cues.

Craig Barton:Yes.  Yes.

Ellie Upton:I think the kids will be hugely disadvantaged.  And it is hard work but teaching’s hard work.

Craig Barton:It certainly …

Ellie Upton:And running a department is hard work.  And running a school is even harder work.  But, you know, it’s part of the job and you have to do it, and you have to do what’s best for the students.  And there is a compromise and when you have a subject which has got a lot of content, like science, and there are other subjects that are very, very similar –

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:History, huge amount of content.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:There’s other ways of doing it.  I mean I know some schools put the mocks on after school.

Craig Barton:Oh, right.

Ellie Upton:I mean they do them after school so it doesn’t take the time away.

Craig Barton:Yes.

Ellie Upton:But then you’ve got the fatigue effect with the students, they’re tired.

Craig Barton:Of course.

Ellie Upton:They’re not going to perform as well.

Craig Barton:Of course.

Ellie Upton:It’s difficult.

Craig Barton:It’s tricky.

Ellie Upton:It’s difficult.  And, you know, one size doesn’t fit all and you’ve got to do what works well for your students in your school, so it’s –

Craig Barton:Well, I tell you what, Ellie, you’ve sold me on the importance of mocks but you’ve also open my eyes even wider to the complexities that are involved in writing them and getting them right.  I found this absolutely fascinating.  Thank you so much for your time.

Ellie Upton:Thank you.  Lovely to meet you.

Craig Barton:Well, I have to say I’m impressed by Ellie’s methodical approach to creating mock papers that will really test her students.  She’s absolutely right to want to make her papers just as robust as the exam boards make theirs.

I’ll be back in a fortnight getting answers to more of your questions, but in the meantime make sure you rate, review and subscribe to the podcast.

You can also join the conversation and ask your own questions on Twitter using #insideexams.  Until next time, good bye.