There’s only one way to improve exam results…..


…get students to get more marks in exams.

There you go. Simple isn’t it? So why do so many schools that have students that are underachieving do everything but focus on this?

Getting marks in an exam relies on two main things: knowing the subject content needed and having the skill to understand what the question demands*.

(And that they have a teacher that knows both of these and can teach them.)

So if you want to improve exam results, you need to look at what each subject is doing, from day one of GCSE to ensure both of these happen. Everything else is a red herring; lesson plenaries, marking policies, group work, homework, working groups, growth mindset…..

But all of this just sounds like an exam factory. What a horrible place to work.  The kids must be like robots. The interesting thing is, it isn’t. My students and their parents regularly tell me they love my lessons. Whenever someone comes to see my classes and asks them about their learning, it’s positive. We still mess around and have a joke. We discuss real life. I still do things that aren’t on the specification. But it all links to these 2 things. I don’t harp on and on about exams. I rarely use the word ‘test’ but we’re doing it all the time. I’m no robot and neither are they.

There is plenty of school time that isn’t focussed on these things: Tutor time, assemblies, PSHE lessons, core PE, non-examined core RE, lunch clubs, after school clubs, school shows, sports fixtures. With a broad and balanced curriculum and extra-curricular offer, a student has lots of time not focussing on exams.

Isn’t this just teaching to the exam? Of course it is. And? Some leaders seem to do crazy other things to get exam results up such as entering students for random qualifications to add to whole school results, book scrutinies, lesson observations, making staff sit in whole school undifferentiated training and other unmentionable practices that would make you shudder. So why not get your teachers to teach these things? There could be much worse things they might do… not teach them how to do the exam. That would be really foolish.

Of course the conditions for this to happen have to be there and this is where it becomes complicated. There are some things that can jeopardise these 2 simple things happening:

  • Student attendance
  • Lack of teachers/subject specialists
  • Behaviour
  • Enforced policies that don’t support these e.g lesson observations that require teachers to jump through hoops that meet a set of criteria that aren’t based on these

But in my opinion these are the responsibility of leaders. They need to work on these so that teachers can teach.

Teacher development should focus on how an individual teacher needs to develop in these two areas. It might involve how they feedback to a student, their routines for embedding knowledge or teacher exposition of how to answer exam questions. Sitting in a hall telling them when/how to mark books is missing the point. The correct answer may be ‘never’ if all their systems and practices in the class support the 2 main ways to improve grades.

So next time you initiate or are initiated into a whole school system designed for classroom practice ask you yourself two questions:

  1. How does this contribute to students knowing what they need to know?
  2. How does this contribute to students being able to apply this knowledge in an exam question?

If it doesn’t answer these, it’s probably not worth the time spent for students or teachers.


*I am well aware of issues surrounding exam board marking but have put these to one side in this blog.