Jill Carter: A Rabbit in the Headlights


The new GCSEs are now timetabled – looks like it will be very similar to the ‘olden days’ – Lit first at the end of May followed by Lang at the beginning of June.  One of the things that has always struck me about impending exams is that they tend to appear out of nowhere a bit like a lorry in the fog. One minute you are cruising along thinking how well you are coping with a tricky journey, the next those enormous headlights are looming over you and you find that you are almost on the wrong side of the road.  The worst of it is that you know you should have sensed it was coming.

So, just as we advise the students to do, how about sitting down and working out how many weeks and lessons you actually have?  The temptation of course, as the exams grow closer, is to concentrate on the Lit until that is ‘out of the way’, only to find that you have a couple of lessons left to finalise the Lang prep. Try to avoid this trap. Don’t spend 6 weeks on An Inspector Calls if your students can’t use paragraphs in their own writing.

By my reckoning there are around 27 weeks from the beginning of October until the first Lit exams.  From February half term, when most teachers will turn their attention to nothing but revision, there are about 9 weeks. Factor into all this the possibilities of work experience, special assemblies etc. etc. and you could find there’s gaps in these weeks that you will feel you should have taken into account.

  • Do your sums: in a school where students have 4 lessons a week that’s around 36 lessons so make a grid with 36 spaces and see how it all fits. Although this could (and almost certainly will) engender an initial sense of panic, the key is to use this to your advantage and prioritise what really matters.
  • Make sure you have a really clear written exam overview so that you can see at a glance exactly what is involved for each exam. This is especially important when approaching exams with which we are not yet overly familiar.
  • Use the resources your exam board have on their website – there may well be very useful revision materials you have overlooked.
  • Make a checklist of knowledge and skills students will need for each of the components and make sure you plan to cover them adequately. Ask yourself ‘Have I taught…?’  For Language the list might look like this:


  • A range of 19th, 20th and 21st century non-fiction, fiction and literary non-fiction (depending on the rubric of your exam board)
  • The idea of themes and thematic links
  • Identifying explicit and implicit information
  • Selecting precise quotations and making close reference to the text
  • Synthesising evidence from two texts
  • Analysing language
  • Analysing structure
  • How a reader can be influenced by a text
  • A wide range of subject terminology
  • Comparing writers’ ideas and perspectives
  • Evaluating texts from a particular standpoint
  • Timings in the exam
  • Marks allocated to questions in the exams
  • Reading exam questions with care
  • Reading closely any introductory / explanatory notes which accompany texts in the exams


  • Form and purpose
  • Tone and style
  • Control over structure
  • Paragraphing
  • Using grammatical features for effect
  • Using sentence structure for clarity and effect
  • Using punctuation for clarity and effect
  • Choosing precise and ambitious vocabulary
  • Spelling strategies
  • Checking and self-correction strategies
  • Timings in the exam
  • Marks allocated to questions in the exams
  • Reading exam questions and instructions with care


  • Personalise revision and preparation by gap analysing mock exams and making notes on individual areas of weakness. Give each student their own list of areas to work on and send it home if you can so parents are in the loop. I work with parents outside of school and they are desperate to know more and to support their kids. Do parents know which texts their children are studying?  Has your department sent home a list of texts and skills which parents could reinforce?
  • Remember that in total students will sit around 7 hours of English exams. They need to get used to this, not only in terms of time management and mental endurance but in physical terms – students who are used to typing or texting will need to build up the muscles needed to write for extended periods and for some this will require practise.


This is no time to stick our heads in the sand and hope for the best! That lorry has left the depot…