Do the Media Report our Exams Correctly?

August in the UK doesn’t just mean a month of school holidays for many school and college pupils; for those who have sat their GCSE, A level, Standards, Highers, BTEC and equivalent exams, it brings to an end a long wait to see if those exams have been passed, and if so, how well.

After the A level results were released in England and Wales this year it was widely reported that, for the first time in many years, boys had fractionally higher grade marks than girls. A number of reasons have been put forward for what seems to be perceived as a sea-change, including the structure of this year’s exams. However, this may not necessarily be true. For instance, The Guardian also quotes a research group called Education Datalab which comments: “Their [boys] performance has improved relative to girls’ this year, but this might have been as much to do with the academic ability of the boys and girls who chose these subjects this year as it is to the changes to A level structure.”

In other words, the differences between boys and girls grades can depend on so many different factors that stating that boys are cleverer than girls this year, or vice versa, is a bold statement. There are so many variables to take into consideration; geographical differences, the subjects chosen (if more boys than girls do chemistry, then they are bound to have the higher percentage of good grades).

It is understandable that newspapers and the media in general feel duty-bound to report on the annual exam results. After all, those pupils are the very people who will steer our country through the next eighty or ninety years. There is a tendency however, when there is no real news to report about the annual results, to focus in on tiny differences in gender achievements or a tiny rise or fall in the overall grades received overall. More or less A grades than average can make a good newspaper headline- and good headlines sell papers.

In reality, despite what reporters say on the television, radio, in the newspapers or on social media platforms, the students that achieve the best exam results are the ones who have worked the hardest. It is those pupils who will go on to get the university places, apprenticeships, and the careers they hoped for- whether they are boys or girls.

Section B – Comparison of two Anthology poems

The question in Section B will ask you to compare two poems from the fifteen which you have studied. The examination paper will choose one poem; you must choose the other.

Preparation is key! It is absolutely vital that you are comfortable and familiar with all the poems. This is no mean feat, so do take it seriously. This is a tricky examination and students (and teachers!) are understandably a little nervous about this. Read through the poems until you are sure of each one. Can you confidently explain the structure, form, imagery and themes in each one? Have you learnt some key quotations for each and every poem?

  • Quick Quiz

Love and Relationships
(1) Which of the poems are about marriage?
(2) Which of the poems are about love between parents and children?

Power and Conflict
(1) Which of the poems consider the power of nature?
(2) Which of these poems are written after the conflict?

If you can, ask a friend or relative to help you revise. Give them a list of the poems you have studied and ask them to read it to you. Give a brief synopsis of each poem.

  • The Question
    Your question will be something like this:

Love and Relationships
‘Compare how poets present the idea of romantic love in ‘Love’s Philosophy’ and in one other poem from your cluster’.


Power and Conflict
‘Compare how poets present the idea of power in ‘Ozymandias’ and in one other poem from your cluster’.

  • Planning your answer

Look carefully at the question and consider what is being asked. You will have the text of the poem in front of you. So what ideas of romantic love are presented in ‘Love’s Philosophy’? You will need to look at the language, structure and form. Consider also the wider context of the poem, e.g. Shelley as a romantic poet. Annotate your poem quickly. Remember to focus on the question being asked. You are not being asked merely to analyse the poem, but to prepare a considered, conceptualised response.

Once you have annotated the first poem (spend about five minutes on that), turn your attention to choosing a second poem. You will not have the full poems in front of you, but you will have a list of them you can read through. Look for comparisons and similarities. Which of the other Relationships poems focus on romantic love? Which of the Conflict poems discuss power? Give yourself a couple of minutes to decide this (and then stop thinking about it and move on!). From memory, jot down key features (language, structure, form and context) of the second poem. How does the poet present ideas about romantic love/power in the poems?

You now have your two poems and notes about each of them. Spend an additional five minutes drawing together a plan. You should aim for about three or four good paragraphs. It is important to not just list the features of the poem; you must explain why they are there and the impact they have. Skilled answers will move beyond a basic comparison and begin to create a conceptualised narrative considering the question of, for example, romantic love/power.

And Finally… Start Writing! A question like this will probably require 10-15 minutes serious planning. A good plan on your exam paper shows the examiner that you understand the question, have considered your answer and you know where you’re going. If you start to edge towards the 15-minute mark, however, it is time to move on. You have revised for this, you have learnt all your quotations and you have prepared a solid plan. Now you need to start writing!


A final blog, on approaching Section C, the Unseen question, will be published on this site next Thursday.

Is your coursework deadline looming? It’s easy to panic about getting all your studies completed, especially when a percentage of your grade is riding on how good your coursework is. However, it can be a great advantage to have part of your GCSE, A Level or other result safely under your belt when you go into your exams. You’re not under the same intense pressure that you would be in an exam situation, so your work is likely to be of a higher standard. Here’s how to make sure you get it right…

  •   Get a clear understanding of what is required

If you have an essay question, for example, write it down before taking it apart. Look at each word of the question and write what it means. If you’re in any doubt about what you’re being asked to do, talk to your tutor or teacher. You should also check how many marks are being allocated for each part of the coursework: the number of marks will dictate how much time and detail should go into each section. If possible, read a few sample answers to get a good idea of what you need to do to get it right.

  •  Plan your research

Whatever the subject of your coursework, you will need to read texts and do research online to arm yourself with everything you need to answer the questions that are being put to you. Make a list of all the sources of information you will be using, and allocate specific amounts of time to spend reading and taking notes for each.

  •  Don’t rush the writing

Your coursework plan should include plenty of time to write your essay and answer the questions posed, or to present your findings. Do not leave this until the night before. Despite the fact that lots of students might say this works for them, you will just feel unbearably stressed and pressurised, and your work will not be to the highest standard it could be. Give yourself a few days to complete the bulk of the writing at a relaxed pace with time for breaks, and your coursework will be much more likely to help you get that grade you’re after.

  •  Factor in editing time

No matter how hard you’ve worked, the first draft of your coursework will not be your best work. Allocate time for drafting well in advance of the deadline so that you can correct mistakes and make improvements. If you find it difficult to read your own work with a critical eye, ask a friend, family member or tutor to offer ideas on how you can make sure that your work is the best it can be.

The key to successfully planning coursework for any subject is allowing plenty of time, and incorporating as much detail as possible into your schedule. This is your chance to make sure you’re going into the exam knowing that you’re part of the way there, so don’t waste it!

To answer the question, let’s start with the basic facts…

Paper 2 of your English Literature examination consists of the following three parts:

  • Section A is a question about the modern prose/drama which you studied.
    Section B is about your poetry Anthology.
    Section C is about unseen poetry.

You will need to spend approximately 45 minutes on each Section.

For Section B, there is no real choice. Find the page which lists the poems you have studied (i.e. either Love and Relationships or Power and Conflict) and that is the question you must answer. Every candidate must answer both the questions in Section C.

  • What poems will I be examined on?

You will have been studying a series of poems in preparation for your examination this summer. You (or more likely, your teacher) will have chosen whether to study of collection of fifteen poems about Love and Relationships, or fifteen poems about Power and Conflict. You must be able to write about any of the fifteen poems from your chosen cluster. A new twist this year is that the exam is closed book. This means that students are not allowed a copy of the Anthology in the exam. This is a change from previous years.

  • How do I answer the Section B question?
    Section B is one 30-mark question. You will be given the text of one poem from your cluster. The question will ask you to compare a theme in that poem with one other poem of your choice (from the other poems you have studied). For example:

‘Compare how poets present the idea of romantic love in ‘Love’s Philosophy’ and in one other poem from your cluster’.

You will notice that the question is asking you to think about how the poet writes. You will need to focus on the poet’s technique in your answer. What imagery do they use? Is is effective? What is the voice? Do they move you?

An advantage to the closed book is that you will be more focussed in your answer. Preparation is key here and you will need to have learned key themes in advance. If the question asks you to consider romantic love, you need to be able to quickly consider the poems you have studied which address the issue and then decide which would work best in the comparison with the text selected. You will not be able to spend lots of time deciding between which poem to discuss or which quotations to use. Your quotations need to be in your head already! For more advice about answering Section B questions, see a separate blog post, to be published next week (March 2nd).

Lastly, how should you approach the Section C questions? Well, there are two questions in Section C and all candidates must answer both of them. The first question asks you to consider one unseen poem. The second question asks you to compare the first poem with an additional unseen poem. The first question is worth 24 marks, whilst the second is only worth 8 marks so you can see where your priorities need to lie. Again, more help with tackling an unseen poem will be given in another blog post to come (Thursday 9th March).

Writing a good essay under exam conditions can be a daunting task…. But it is a skill which has to be learnt and practised on a regular basis over the course of your studies. Essay questions at A level usually carry 24 marks, a fairly hefty portion of the total marks awarded for the paper. You need to be able to write at least two pages of coherent material under timed conditions.

You should get down to  work on the course as soon as possible. Provide yourself with a clear study timetable incorporating the number of hours per day/week etc you intend to devote to the course and when you plan to submit assignments for marking. Stick to this timetable throughout the course.

You are going to encounter fairly complex material. It is therefore a good idea to make your own notes from the material supplied in the lessons. I suggest you do the same with model answers provided by OOL. This will help you learn the material and give you practice in summarising argument and opinion. It will also aid revision and the retention of factual material.

Be clear that a rote regurgitation of the facts alone will gain you few marks. You must produce a formal piece of writing that addresses the actual question set on the examination paper. Irrelevant answers are heavily penalised. Writing an analysis and evaluation of the historical situation under review will gain high marks. This includes an outline of the cause and effect of historical events. Try to demonstrate some awareness of different interpretations. Try to include some evaluation which flows from your analysis. This might include how a particular point of view fits the historical facts or how valid a particular authority is. For example, evidence quoted from a primary source – state papers, a diplomatic document or private correspondence of the period is usually preferable to a secondary source.

Spend some time (5-10 mins) planning the broad outline of the essay before you begin writing. Hand in your notes as well as your script to the invigilator. Throughout the essay made explicit reference to the wording of the question and do the same in the conclusion. If the question requires it, come to a judgement or a balanced summary.

You should try to complete all the TMAs. They are usually closely related to past exam questions. Consult the model answers published on the internet particularly in the later stages of your course. Try to complete the course by the beginning of April of the year of the exam, using your own notes for revision.

One final point: A level students are usually advised to read widely. But students working by correspondence course lead busy lives and there are thousands of well written history texts published each year. Up to date material can be found on the internet. I would also recommend the historical programmes presented on TV, giving easy access to re-evaluation of historical events. Try to remember, history is no longer about dates and kings and queens. So enjoy the course.

Are you feeling a little nervous about your exams? The key to success is remaining calm and in control. The best way to take control is by following a dedicated and varied revision schedule. Simply staring at your text books is not the answer – here’s what to do…

1. Break up your time. It’s especially important to break your revision time into small chunks when exams are just around the corner. You want to make sure that every subject is covered in as much detail as possible.

For example, if you have decided that you are going to revise on a Saturday morning, break it down into study periods of 45 minutes each. Write down what you are going to cover in each study period, thinking carefully about how long each task will take.

2. Use a pen and paper. You’ve probably done most of your coursework and revision on your laptop or tablet. However, using a pen and paper has significant advantages when it comes to committing information to memory.

Read through the material you need to know. Then, use your pen to write down the most important points, facts, dates or quotations. The act of writing will help you to absorb the information, and also aids your evaluative skills – which are important in almost all subjects.

3. Create personal audio notes. Having created your paper notes, it’s now time to really consolidate your knowledge and ensure that you don’t forget any important details.

Using your phone or tablet, choose the voice recording feature and read your notes aloud. For the absolutely vital information, add a sound effect or change your voice – both will help it to stand out and instantly become more memorable.

4. Listen up. Listen to your personal audio notes as much as possible, and vary the recordings you choose so that every subject is covered.

Making a cup of coffee in the morning? That’s 5 minutes that could be spent listening to your notes. On the bus? Put in your earphones and listen to your notes as you watch the world go by.

5. Pop quiz. Adding a little fun to your learning can dramatically increase your chances of exam success. Get a friend or family member to help you create a quiz about the course(s) you have been studying. For wrong answers, you pay a penalty. For example, if you have forgotten a quotation, you have to go out into the street and shout it aloud!

It’s not too late to complete this revision plan: all you need is a little determination and the desire to succeed! If everything is getting too much for you, don’t be afraid to take time out to rest, relax and listen to your favourite music. You could even try doing a 5 minute breathing meditation to help give you focus and a sense of calm. Everyone will wonder what your secret is!

A Permission Form is an internal OHS form which is not required for booking exams but very useful in helping OHS to help you with the administration needed when taking exams.

It is useful because…

We can gather more data on the exam centres that have helped our students before.
It allows us to keep our viable exam centre map and information more up to date than that of the exam boards.
It gives permission to contact centres in the event of any problems with booking, results or coursework.
It allows us to gather vital information on how well our students are performing in exams, rather than relying on getting it from the exam boards.
It provides information on the centres we can send coursework to, if students have it.

For these reasons, if we receive your Permission Form back from you completed, we can make the process of getting you to your exam much smoother. We would also appreciate being able to do this as soon as possible, so be sure to return the form soon. Please be assured that all information received is confidential and for internal use only.


640px-Question_exclamation.svgThe obsession with exam results and statistics that comes around every year seems to me to be driven by the media; they do not need to report on it in the way that they do every year. It is always on the national news as well as the local news and most times I think to myself, ‘but this is not news.’ Unless there is a dramatic, and more importantly, unexpected change in the overall picture, then there is nothing to report.

My feelings as far as the media are concerned are that they like to look for someone to blame no matter what happens, and they appear disappointed if it is not a year to find culprits, but they will report anyway because next year they might be able to do some blaming. Even if there is a change for the better, they often seem to look for a negative if they can find one. I feel sorry for the students being exposed to this.

Of course, successive Governments and Ofsted have played a major part in creating this annual frenzy, through their punitive attitudes around performance and progress, but whether they change their approach or not, I feel that the media will carry on in the same way as it is now tradition.

Think on this: why don’t we hear the same stories about University students each year? Not important, not interesting? Perhaps it is not news.

640px-Question_exclamation.svgCurrently students apply to university by 15 January and are made provisional offers based on predicted grades. These provisional places given in the application process are based on the predicted grades, but fewer than 10% receive correct predictions for all their subjects. Ignoring this fact, exams start in late May, with results being published in mid-August. Those without a place (about 40,000 a year) apply through the clearing system for vacancies. The academic year then starts in late September or early October.

It has been proposed by UCAS that exams be brought forward by 15 days, starting in early May, and that results be published by early July, before term ends. As part of this, the marking process would be sped up, allowing students to make applications having received their results; the element of doubt as to whether or not you would be qualified to attend a particular university would be removed. Another consequence would be that no university should start their academic year until 8 October. Such a change would be the first major reform to the system since 1961.

All this is described as being necessary to avoid student anguish and the hit and miss nature of their telephoning universities to see if they can get a place, relying on hope as to whether they can get through or not. We have a system that is complex, which lacks transparency for many students, and is inefficient and frenzied at this time of the year.

I suspect that the reason this has come to the fore now is that the larger number of students in the system has created an even more frenzied and stressful time for the universities. The students just had to put up with it in the past. Now the universities are also faced with more competition for students, which must also be driven by money considerations, a bye product of the tuition fees system. This has developed into a farcical situation whereby universities are offering free lap tops and gym membership to students as sweeteners, resulting in students shopping around, asking, ‘what are you going to offer me when I can get such and such from this other university?’ I think the universities want to get away from this.

Practically, the change in dates should not be a problem for schools, but it may feel too tight a schedule for some subjects in some schools. Universities starting around 8th October is not much of a change, some do not start until then anyway. So you gain 2 weeks. The marking is going to be sped up. Ha, ha: How often have we heard of marking fiascoes in recent years, and why that was? If it was not due to political reasons then it was because of inadequate funding in the exam system. There are not enough full time staff running the exam boards, and many markers are also teaching in schools, so it is a pressured second job with a tight time schedule and limited training. This is not the best arrangement for success and yet it is planned to speed it up. Well, if nothing else changes, expect even more fiascoes.

I do not think these proposed changes will make life that much easier for the universities. Yes it will cut out the clearing system stress, but if they want to evaluate students properly and interview them, which ideally I think they should be doing for all prospective students, then they will still be pushed for time. This will also have an impact on holidays, as many university staff will not get one during the summer if they do the job properly after these changes.

So what are the alternatives? Sit A-levels after Christmas? That would make everything earlier in schools, which is not a good idea. Having a gap year and applying during the year, will give the universities a year without students. Neither of these will work.

However, the universities could give themselves more time by starting the academic year in November or later if need be. I do not see that this would be a problem because I do not see why the academic year needs to run from October to June, why not November to July? This would mean A-level results could be obtained in the same way as now, applications could then be made with no clearing system and the academic year for universities is shifted slightly. Problem solved.

640px-Question_exclamation.svgTraditionally, students apply well in advance of receiving, and indeed of sitting their exams. This leads to conditional offers set by the universities. The applications are based on predicted grades. If these are not met, students – whether they fail to meet or indeed exceed their expectations – go through clearing or adjustment. Some politicians such as the former higher education minister Bill Rammel insist this should be reviewed.

There are surely many reasons for doing so. Students could make informed and realistic choices if they had their results, enabling them to choose from universities that were really available to them, rather than those that might be. It could also lessen the burden of stress for students, who currently pin their hopes on best set expectations.

Some might argue that students can choose to go through clearing, as mentioned already, meaning they apply with real results, and many students do so. In the past, applying through clearing had always had some stigma attached to it, highlighting an underperformance. With an alteration of the system as suggested, this could be eliminated and prove positive for the self-esteem of our young people. Moreover, one has to bear in mind that more than half the predicted grades are proven to be incorrect.

However, the real question is whether UCAS would be able to turn around ALL possible applications within a mere month before the start of first term, including the sorting out of funding and loans, or whether this is just physically impossible. In addition, such change would mean that students would be on their own dealing with their applications, rather than having the help of teachers at hand when compiling personal statements and completing all necessary forms. That could certainly add to stress levels for students. The help from schools choosing and preparing for the future should also surely be noted when thinking about changes. Finally, other services for students to review different options – courses and universities – would then need to be made available.

So whilst the current system may not be the best, changes to it may need careful consideration with all its implications.

Connect with Oxford Home Schooling