The year ahead is an uncertain one for our young people, especially for those students preparing to take their A-level and GCSE exams next year. While headlines continue to speculate with rumours abound, for now, all we really know is that exams won’t happen at the usual time of year. As we know from the chaotic events of summer, what we once deemed to be ‘certain’ is well and truly behind us.
For now, at least, as teachers, we have to have faith that some rational and constructive review of the exam process will come, even if the timelines are currently less clear. Much like teaching, which is unlikely to suffer in the longer term, there is hope that a pandemic-style shake-up and refresh could also result in positive change.
As teachers, we have to have faith that some rational and constructive review of the exam process will come, even if the timelines are currently less clear
Historically, Upper Sixth and Year 11 students have always endured pressure and worry at this time of year. When you care about something deeply, it is perfectly natural to feel apprehensive or nervous about it. With coursework, UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions), ploughing on through the courses and mock exams on the horizon, there is much to focus on.
As heads, we really feel for our current exam-aged pupils, although current Year 12 students are in a truly bizarre position – having not sat GCSEs, many are finding it hard to imagine that they will ever sit exams again.
Right now, schools are doing all they can to prepare for every eventuality. Moving mocks back, along with all of the reporting that goes around it, will ensure that momentum builds, as it normally does. A ‘belt-and-braces’ approach is the order of the day. Back-up mock exam periods that can be sat in school or at home, dependent on all the scenarios, makes for more than simply a touch of ‘reinventing the wheel’.
Schools have also learned some hard lessons around the requirements for a robust evidence trail to support all grades. The stark reality of last summer’s grading fiasco has certainly brought this into sharper focus.
Regular common assessments across all year groups and, in particular, for years 10-13, is going to become a core feature for all good schools this coming year. The added pressure this is likely to place on pupils, staff and, no doubt, parents is something schools are also preparing for. That said, we must consider that the levels of anxiety would be far worse if schools were unable to reassure pupils and parents about the extra care taken around assessments and evidential recording.
Reassurance is something we are all seeking at the moment. But, as schools, we must try to avoid getting side-tracked by trying to provide cast-iron guarantees for students who may or may not sit exams. Teaching to the exam spec is a deflating concept for the passionate teacher and now, more than ever, it seems pretty pointless. Surely in the midst of all this uncertainty, the best way schools can serve their pupils right now (Year 12, in particular) is to enthuse and nurture a love of the subject?
In essence, we need more inspiration and positivity, more engaging lessons and perhaps a slightly ‘off-the-wall’ approach towards driving and encouraging confidence and self-belief (alongside a well-implemented approach to blended learning, of course).
This is where excellence in teaching comes into its own. We have to reach out further to find new ways to motivate, support and guide our young people. This also means that through conversation and planning ahead, we have to reduce the impact of fear which many are consumed by, so that they can actually focus with clarity and concentrate on the road ahead.
We need more inspiration and positivity, more engaging lessons and perhaps a slightly ‘off-the-wall’ approach towards driving and encouraging confidence and self-belief
Schools are reporting an increase in mental health concerns, and fear of the unknown is certainly a contributing factor. Children are starting to feel as though they can’t even be poorly any more or take time to recover from an illness, because remote learning means they are now expected to be able to work remotely from their sick beds.
Schools like mine are offering counselling and wellbeing sessions. Anxiety levels certainly seem higher – online yoga sessions and advice relating to sleep will help – but perhaps most important is the need to encourage our young to think about what lies ahead. Dedicated time to talk through their ambitions and their back-up plans and facing worse-case scenarios can help them navigate these murky waters.
Reassurance that resonates
Finally, reassuring students that their school will support them regardless of what lies ahead really matters. Talking young people and their parents through their grades carefully, so that everyone understands every nuance, will help to build stronger relationships and ease any worries or concerns. Timetabling dedicated sessions on gap years, apprenticeships and other career choices that might bridge a gap to university will also be very popular as we look to next year.
Alumni can also help more than ever here, especially recent leavers returning to speak about their own journeys, as this will resonate and hopefully demonstrate that there is light at the end of this dark tunnel.
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