As independent schools switch into full examination mode, an intense period begins for all concerned, including teachers, parents and students in particular – whose GCSE and A-level results chart the course of their lives.
Exams can take a toll: Childline held over 3,000 exam-stress counselling sessions in 2017–18, with students concerned about heavy workloads and not achieving adequate grades. But with careful planning and support, students, tutors and families can navigate the period to achieve the right results. Here, four schools – Abingdon School, Lewes Old Grammar School (LOGS), Manchester High School for Girls (MHSG) and Roedean School – discuss strategies for negotiating the slings and arrows of exam season.
Preparation, preparation, preparation
The fundamental principle underpinning exam-readiness is starting early. Last year, the Independent Schools Council published examination tips, stating the best results are awarded not to the cleverest students, but to those who revise in the Easter holidays.
Roedean deploys a myriad of ways of preparing its girls for exams, including an all-subjects Revision Week for Years 11 and 13 in the first week of the Easter holidays; at Abingdon, boys are steered on specific requirements of exam papers during Year 11 and, come Easter, set target hours for revision and are given tips on how to organise time.
At coeducational day school LOGS, meanwhile, preparation for GCSEs starts in September for Year 11 pupils and parents, at an information evening where, says Year 11 head Louise Webster, “They will all be given an information pack with details of the months leading up to the exams, from when study leave is, to dates reports will go out, to when the mocks are.”
We try to remind girls to get out in the fresh air, and that the chance to do something different which can act as a release is crucial
Although revision wheels are in motion by Easter, exam prep is an ongoing process and understanding course content and paper specifics is fundamental. At day school MHSG, where one-third of students attained 7–9/A–A* in all their GCSEs and 74% of A-level students achieved A*/A, fully grasping specification content is vital, says geography head Rachael Daly.
“At the beginning of each topic, I issue students with a copy of the specification and use the words of this for lesson and worksheet titles,” she continues. “We’ve had sessions where they annotate the specs with examples or relevant case studies, so that they feel confident with their knowledge.
I also provide students with a breakdown of exams, so they know what to expect.
I’ve also written out all the past questions into a table, which has helped the students to see similarities in the styles of questions.”
At Abingdon, where 84.7% of boys attained A*/A at GCSE and 63.4% received A-A* at A-level last year, understanding what examiners want is key. Deputy head (academic) Graeme May, says: “From the moment they’re choosing GCSEs, we tell them what the syllabus is. Teachers [use] past paper questions and explain what examiners are getting at. Examiners’ reports will often be very specific and say: this went really well, this is what we like to see and this kind of writing does not play so well’. So we share all that.” This, says May, gives students clarity about what they’re heading towards.
Roedean, where 48.2% of 2018 students achieved A*/equivalent at GCSE and 53.7% received A*/A at A-level, organises Past Paper Parties every Wednesday and Friday for Year 11. “Girls can do any paper under timed, supervised conditions, trying to replicate the exam situation,” says assistant head/head of Year 11 Dee Robins and director of sixth form Dr Gemma Hannan, continuing: “This really helps the girls anticipate the conditions they will be working under, come the real thing.”
They also emphasise self-sufficiency, giving students access to syllabuses and mark schemes, “so they can mark their own work and learn from their mistakes, which provides a great opportunity for self-reflection. Needless to say, we also provide girls with revision guides, planners and timetables, to make sure they are as organised as possible, which takes a lot of the stress away.”
● Replicate exam situations with any paper under timed, supervised conditions
● Provide students with revision guides, planners and timetables
● Give students access to syllabuses and mark schemes
● Hold an all-subjects Revision Week in the first week of the Easter holidays
● Make students aware of tutors and counsellors they can talk to
● Hold an information evening in September where students are given an information pack
● Hold clinics after lessons and at lunchtimes for questions and specific feedback
● Analyse exam scripts and create spreadsheets focusing on where each pupil needs extra help
● Address sleep, diet and exercise to help performance in assemblies
● Remind students that extra-curricular activities, getting outside and time out is crucial
● Ensure the school has breakout and work spaces for quiet study
Focus on the individual
The schools are acutely aware that one-size-fits-all approaches to exams don’t work, with students requiring tailored attention.
A hallmark of Abingdon’s approach is clinics, held after lessons and at lunchtimes. May says: “Boys can come with questions [and] have that opportunity across all subjects to get very specific feedback.” If a student is struggling, the school takes back free time and puts him into supervised study.
At LOGS, exam scripts are analysed and a spreadsheet focusing on where each pupil needs extra help is created. “We set targets based on this,” says Webster.
“The information is passed onto the pupils’ tutors, [who] timetable in one-on-one time so they can see how they can help individuals. As someone who has oversight of the whole process, I have a complete open-door policy in my office. Pupils know they can walk in and tell me what’s wrong, and I will put a strategy in place for them.”
Individualised approaches are supported by mental health charity YoungMinds, which exhorts stakeholders to “work with your child to find what revision style works for them” and “set aside one-to-one time so that they can talk to you about any worries”.
Related news from the archive: Two A-level students created Exambrain, a free website for searching past paper questions by topic
As the exam season can be stressful, pastoral care plays a vital role at all the schools. Abingdon’s housemasters and tutors meet with small groups of boys daily, providing individual guidance wherever appropriate. May also notes: “If the boys need more support we have a team of counsellors, a chaplain and assistant chaplain, so we hope it’s quite hard for them not to have somebody they might go and let off steam to and ask for a bit of help if they’re feeling stressed.”
Roedean adopts a similar approach, with weekly one-to-one tutor meetings throughout the year, plus, notes Robins and Hannan: “There are three pastoral managers available during the day, plus peer listeners and the school counsellor, if necessary.”
LOGS and MHSG favour assemblies for addressing sleep, diet and exercise to help performance and stress management, and focusing on the importance of balance during exams. A counsellor sees LOGS pupils worried about coping, says Webster, “or conversely for high-achieving pupils who let themselves get too anxious about their results.” At MHSG, form tutors play an important role in the lead-up to exams, says Daly, supporting students who are stressed.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy
Another way of equipping students is through extra-curricular activities.
The Sleep Council reports that, as exams loom, the number of teenagers getting only five-six hours sleep doubles, so it recommends students let off some steam by walking, running or getting involved in a sport. Webster’s advice echoes this, reminding LOGS students that extra-curricular activities and time out are crucial. “You can only concentrate for a finite period and I tell all our pupils to remember to eat well, get enough sleep, exercise and do stuff you enjoy in-between revising!”
For May, extra-curricular activity – ‘Other Half’ in Abingdonian terms – is absolutely “central”. “It’s important to the boys to keep doing other things – getting out and having a run, carrying on with your team sport, going to the gym.”
Daly encourages MHSG girls to attend lunchtime activities, so they can de-stress and enjoy themselves. Alongside more traditional sports, Roedean offers relaxation techniques for coping during exam periods, such as yoga and Pilates.
“We try to remind girls to get out in the fresh air, and that the chance to do something different which can act as a release is crucial,” say Robins and Hannan.
Examiners’ reports will often be very specific and say: this went really well, this is what we like to see and this kind of writing does not play so well’. So we share all that.
Physical surroundings are also influential, particularly at boarding schools, where students live and study. Therefore, Abingdon offers varied breakout and work spaces, where, May says, boys “can go and think”. Over at Roedean, boarders work and relax in different places during study leave, while the Sixth Form Centre separates social and study environments so they can delineate the two. “This has proved to be very popular with the Year 12s and 13s,” says Robins and Hannan.
Determined and successful
As for the students, what provisions do they particularly like in preparing for the exam season? Abingdon’s three-week clinic and supervised study programme is valued by boys and parents.
“It’s voluntary, but for those three weeks of study leave, they can come into school and have something to occupy them every lesson of the day,” says May.
At LOGS, 45 drop-in, lunchtime booster sessions offered from September of Year 11 prove popular. “They like that and respond very well to it,” says Webster. Daly says that her department’s optional lunchtime sessions at MHSG are a hit, with over half her geography students attending. She also praises her girls for rising to the challenge of answering questions she sets that they have not been asked before.
“It is wonderful to see their enthusiasm and determination to succeed,” she says.