Strategy One: The Lead Lesson

For Meopham students, the Lead Lesson is a staple feature in Year 11 life. There are few things more scary for students than having to go in to the exam hall for the first time and face an unknown question. In response to this fear, the Lead Lesson was born.

The premise is simple. The first step to getting over exam room fear is to place the students in the exam room. However, for many students this still only happens for mock exams and end of year assessments when they are in lower school. The Lead Lesson is not a test, taking away instantly some of the fear of possible failure. Instead, it is delivered in a similar structure to a lecture or seminar and makes it easier to deliver high impact, exam skill focused learning to a whole year group in one sitting.

  • Not only that, it harnesses the ‘power of the school hall’. That is, it takes advantage of the fact that anything written in the hall is ultimately more serious. While we are trying to reduce student fear of exams, there is no denying that the school hall does hold a powerful sway over the student psyche.

While Lead Lesson content may differ, the structure remains the same. These are predominantly used for English at Meopham School but are also used by our Maths department and could be easily adapted for other departments. They are a helpful setting for going through the longer questions of Geography and History, or to hold a ‘walking talking mock’ for any subject.

Once you’ve gathered your cohort in the hall, the key to this technique is consistency. After the first Lead Lessons, students should know exactly what to expect for the next. For the Meopham School English Department, this means always starting at the end: the mark scheme.

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With the prospect of new exams and new mark schemes for all, a little time going over the mark scheme with students is beneficial not only for them but also for the staff leading the session or attending. Confidence with the mark scheme is important for all of those involved in the examination process after all, not just the students.

However, the most important part of any Lead Lesson is in the name: the leading. At our school, Lead Lessons are normally run by the Head of Department but if you have a member of staff who is especially knowledgeable on chemical compounds, algebraic equations or developing historical arguments, there’s no reason why the expert on that specific area shouldn’t be at the front of your hall. The session Lead guides students through the information, in this case an extract from the text and the question that will go alongside it. Clear aims and success criteria are established before students are released in to group discussion.

At this point, armed with an extract and able to discuss and annotate with others in the room – sometimes even from different sets to allow higher and lower ability to benefit from each other – students are able to tackle the exam question with more confidence. Time is given to sharing of ideas with teachers as facilitators of conversation rather than guiding it.

A consistent planning structure is the next key element of our Lead Lesson. Regardless of topic in English, students are always presented with something resembling this:

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As we all know, planning ideas in groups is far less intimidating for many students. This is often especially true of our lower ability groups. The Lead Lesson allows firstly for easy scaffolding but also then as your year progresses and students become more confident and comfortable with this set up, the scaffold can be removed. Before you know it, you have a cohort of students sat in silence in the hall, planning exam answers. Not only that, but this is no longer an intimidating or anxiety-inducing experience. This is simply the norm.

  • For subjects with essay based answers, this planning structure may be able to remain very similar. For others like Maths and Science, perhaps this is the moment that students attempt the modeled content from the Lead but now in small groups.

Finally, students get to not only see a sample paragraph but also ask questions about it. For reasons unknown, this appears to be even more powerful when it happens in a Lead Lesson. The ‘power of the school hall’ makes all of the strategies that we normally use in the classroom that much more effective.

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This progression of events obviously leads to students writing an exam answer in controlled conditions. This is where the results of this group learning truly come to the fore. Now armed with not only confidence from the knowledge and advice of the Head of Department but also settled by the significance of the school hall, students write with a focus that is hard to replicate even in the best of classrooms.

The best part of this whole strategy is when, a couple of months down the line, students ask for a Lead Lesson. An essay written in the hall is no longer an end of term assessment or a tool to give students a ‘kick’ but instead a productive and positive piece of work that is progress driven.