From entrance papers to GCSEs, A-Levels and beyond, exams are a fact of life for students up and down the country. But how do schools prepare young people for the trials and tribulations of testing and how important are good grades to future success? We spoke to education experts to find out…
METICULOUSLY-created revision timetables, rows of desks lined up with military precision in hushed school halls and nervous faces around every corner can only mean one thing – the inevitable return of exam season.
Whether as an annual test of a pupil’s progress or the assessment which will define their GCSE or A-Level grades, exams are an ever-present element of education.
But with students’ next steps linked with their end-of-course performance, how do schools ensure those turning over their papers are academically and emotionally ready for the rigours of exam season?
Anthony Kirk-Burgess, headmaster at Rookwood School, stressed the importance of looking after pupils’ mental wellbeing in the face of a greater focus on exams over coursework, increased use of essay-style questions and escalating cost of higher education.
“Today’s exam students do have a tough time, to say the least,” he told us.
“At Rookwood, we place an equal focus on providing excellent pastoral care as we do on ensuring the highest quality of teaching and learning.
“This is done through formal sessions during our PSHE and assembly programme on coping with stress and other pressures; by providing extracurricular and sporting opportunities so that students can unwind and relax; and through a culture in the staffroom of getting to know each student so that they feel valued and supported.”
Applying a sharp focus on pastoral care is an approach shared by Salisbury Cathedral School. Deputy head Nick Hawker explained that the school’s Speech Day celebrates many achievements outside of the academic realm, while a wealth of sporting opportunities provide a welcome chance for pupils to let off steam.
He added: “We are renowned for our pastoral care and try to provide encouragement – because it is important to try – but we are also create awareness of the bigger picture so that there is perspective.”
Shielding students from exam stress is key for Chafyn Grove headmaster Simon Head, who admitted the issue is “creeping ever more insidiously” towards younger pupils.
To counteract any potential pitfalls, he encourages his staff to employ a “less is more” approach to testing, explaining: “The children need to develop a certain amount of resilience towards testing through experience of it, however it is all too easy for it to acquire unworthy prominence if you test too often.
“By playing down the importance of assessment, instead focusing on the invigoration of learning, you keep the stress of examinations in perspective. After all, perfect preparation prevents panic!”
At St Mary’s Shaftesbury, girls approaching exams are given every chance to do so in top condition thanks to the services of an experienced health centre team. Students benefit from year-round access to nutritional consultations, sports massage, aromatherapy and counselling which, according to deputy head Sarah Matthews, is an important part of the school’s efforts to provide balance.
“They continue with their passions and interests throughout their GCSE and A Level years; letting off steam on the sports pitch, or in the art or dance studio, or cracking a skill completely off-curriculum is a great way to keep perspective,” she said.
As important as it is to provide pupils with a focus outside of their studies, no school loses sight of the ultimate goal of helping those under their care to achieve their academic aims.
For Alistair Bryce, a chemistry teacher at Queen Victoria School, the two elements are not mutually exclusive and success relies on helping students to find a balance between learning and relaxation.
“We ensure pupils are aware of study techniques; the importance of setting SMART targets; prioritising the key elements of each course; and knowing the importance of creating a positive study environment,” he explained.
“That said, the exam season can be a particularly stressful time for pupils and their families. Finding the opportunity to wind down and enjoy personal time is essential for fully preparing each individual for the exams ahead.”
The dual delivery of academic and personal development is also on show at Malvern St James Girls’ School, where sports facilities, the availability of pilates yoga and mindfulness courses and a chaplain-led mind-and-body workshop are allied with planning advice, bespoke revision sessions and past-paper practise to provide a well-rounded provision.
Headmistress Olivera Raraty said: “Girls who are happy can thrive in their personal and academic lives. The home-from-home environment we create here, and our comprehensive wellbeing programme, means that MSJ pupils are both physically and mentally prepared for the exam process.
“Students are also encouraged to look up from their books from time-to-time and see the bigger picture. We live in a beautiful part of the world – a designated Area of Natural Beauty – and a walk on the Malvern Hills is enough to soothe the soul and draw inspiration.”
Wellington Academy’s executive headteacher Abrilli Phillip believes that preparation is the key to developing stress-free, successful students at exam time.
“We are strong believers that the best intervention takes place in the classroom and [we] avoid pulling our pupils in many directions for after-school revision and last-minute catch up,” she explained. “We use an extensive formative assessment system which ensures learning is monitored closely by staff and lessons used to fill gaps quickly.”
The proactive approach is shared by Vinehall School, where headmaster Joff Powis takes pride in ensuring that every pupil is primed for the trials and tribulations of testing.
Students can access revision support and advice in class as well as taking practice papers or attending extra tuition lessons and prep sessions if required.
Joff added: “Each child is given encouraging feedback with detailed targets for improvement and plenty of praise for areas of success. This high level of preparation helps students to feel calmer and more relaxed as the exam season approaches.
“We are also fully aware of how stressful exam times can be for the parents and are proud of our strong relationships and open communication that ease the worries and share the load.”
A growing appreciation of the negative role that anxiety can play in young people’s development has helped bring about a number of changes to education – and students at All Hallows Preparatory School benefit from the innovative methods of headteacher and educational psychologist Dr Trevor Richards.
Dr Richards works with pupils, staff and parents to foster a balanced perspective and help students manage any emotional problems.
Deputy head Richard Barnes explained: “Our focus on progress and growth helps us to put examinations into their proper context. In conjunction with other staff, the head leads study skills sessions to equip our children to manage their preparation for examinations which will inevitably become part of their academic lives moving forwards.
“Part of the school’s mission is to help our children flourish in whatever comes next for them. We also run seminars for parents, believing that interventions are far more powerful if we work in partnership to create the best outcomes for our children.”
If the emotional outcomes of different schools’ approaches are not always immediately apparent, the nature of exams makes the results much easier to gauge.
And while achieving at or above expectation is obviously an important and joyous step for a student, it also holds significance for the staff and schools who helped them reach their potential.
Dan Thornburn, headmaster at Edgeborough Preparatory School, saw 100 per cent of his year eight pupils accepted by their first choice of senior school – a success in line with his aim of providing a high-quality education for all.
“Our pupils enjoy a broad experience in all areas and teachers ensure a balance between challenging pupils intellectual development while supporting their artistic, sporting, spiritual and social growth,” he added.
Bredon School headteacher Koen Claeys said that exam success suggests that his students have been enrolled onto the right courses – a fact aptly demonstrated by Bredon’s 100 per cent pass rate at BTEC levels one, two and three. Koen said “It shows that our teachers know their students really well.”
The pride that those at the front of the classroom feel over their students’ progress is in no short supply at Farleigh School, where 55 pupils in year eight successfully gained places at senior schools, with 20 gaining awards across areas including sport, art, music and performing arts.
Jane Watts, deputy head (academic), said: “We teachers always have a tremendous sense of achievement when our pupils get into their first choice of senior school, especially when you take into account the extent of their involvement in so many other activities – music, sport, drama, debating, riding. There is a lot for these 12- and 13-year-olds to juggle!”
The theme of academic achievement also runs through Monmouth School for Boys and Monmouth School for Girls. Male sixth formers secured the school’s best A-Level results since 2012 with 75.9 per cent achieving A*-B grades, a figure nearly emulated by the girls’ 75.2 per cent.
James Boiling, head of sixth form at Monmouth School for Boys, told us: “The headline statistics at both schools were very strong and something for our students and staff to be very proud of.
“Our outstanding results reaffirmed our view that all the hard work and dedication of staff and pupils pays off. We want our students at Monmouth to achieve their personal best, whether it’s an A*, A, B or C grade at A level.”
Taunton’s Queen’s College, which aids its pupils’ preparations through a dedicated learning development department, is another school celebrating an upward trajectory in its examination results – particularly in the new 9-1 GCSEs in maths and English language and literature.
Pamela Pawley, director of studies, added that excellent A-Level results allowed “virtually all” of the school’s students to earn places at their preferred universities.
She explained: “The results days are always a cause for celebration for the school and its teaching staff as they mark the end of a lot of hard work on the part of both the students and the teachers, who daily give up so much of their time to support and encourage them.
“We always love to celebrate the successes of the individual – this can equally be a student who manages to pass a subject they have battled with throughout the GCSE course or a strong student who has managed to achieve A* grades in all areas.”
At Adcote School, a sustained focus on STEM subjects resulted in 100 per cent A*-B grades in physics, 85 per cent in maths and 87 per cent in further maths. It also recorded a four per cent rise in top grades.
The sense that students are not facing the stresses of exams alone is apparent at Warminster School, where Mark Sully, deputy head (academic), believes that teachers do their utmost to provide as much help as is needed.
“The amount of extra support provided by staff leading up to exam sessions is fantastic,” said Mark, whose school posted a 100 per cent International Baccalaureate pass rate in July 2017 as well as a 99 pass rate in mathematics in the latest GCSE and A-Level sittings.
“This support is provided during dedicated revision sessions in our Green Zone as well as lunchtime, after school and weekend support sessions. The staff take great pride in the results obtained by the pupils, as was seen on results day with a vast number of staff in school to celebrate with the pupils.”
Given the impact exam results can have on students’ futures, it is no surprise that schools treat testing with such respect.
But good grades are just one part of a wider educational picture and the measurement of students’ success extends much, much further.
Sarah Matthews at St Mary’s Shaftesbury singles out her pupils’ happiness as a key indicator of the school’s success. “We want the girls to be happy,” she said. “Happy with their own achievements and happy that they’re achieving all they can.
“Exam periods are about learning how to succeed as well as the success itself; we teach the girls how to manage the pressure they are under in sensible, realistic ways. This kind of resilience and feeling confident that you are well supported allows girls to flourish and do their best.”
A dedication to producing well-rounded young people has seen Queen’s College put in place a plan to become a centre of excellence for thinking and creativity. Pamela Pawley said this is being accomplished through the embedding of metacognition in all areas of school life to effectively develop thinking skills.
She added: “Success is producing confident and friendly students who have the skills to succeed in whatever they choose to do in life.
“We like to see students succeed by managing to problem solve and develop skills which will help them in life – as well as in exams.”
For Nick Hawker at Salisbury Cathedral School, success represents ensuring pupils are capable of flourishing in whatever setting life throws at them. The school works with local companies to run a business workshop which exposes year eight pupils to everything from business plans and profit to teamwork.
Nick explained: “This provides a valuable opportunity for pupils to shine as an alternative to academic results.
“There are many positive outcomes from attending Salisbury Cathedral School. Learning the skills of good communication with peers and seniors, resilience in adversity, and commitment to a cause are all excellent life skills.”
All Hallows Preparatory School’s Richard Barnes argues that exam results are just one part of the “intellectual character” that he hopes to promote in each pupil.
He added: “We want to cultivate, grow and celebrate each child’s capacity to combine thinking skills with knowledge, confidence and self-esteem, to believe in the legitimacy of their own thoughts, to speak their mind articulately (but change it when required), to contest poor thinking and prejudice assertively, and enjoy the challenge of mental sparring.
“We foster intellectual risk-taking and curiosity, independence, resilience and effective learning habits within an ambitious, supportive learning community where individual learning profiles are nurtured and celebrated, and where all children are encouraged to strive to achieve their very best.”
Taking a wider view of a pupil’s progress is also advocated by Edgeborough’s Dan Thornburn. He is proud that his students are happy and excited about learning and enjoy being exposed to new and challenging experiences.
He added: “Their all-round education is underpinned with intrinsic values and life skills that encourage a caring, tolerant and cooperative ethos.”
For Koen Claeys at Bredon School, academic success outside of exam periods is achieved every time a teacher adapts their lessons to meet the needs of their pupils.
“We believe in the idea that If a student cannot learn the way our teachers teach, our teachers will teach the way our students learn,” he explained.
The notion that grades are not the be-all-and-end-all of education is endorsed by Chafyn Grove’s Simon Head, who said that cognitive testing can play a secondary role to the abilities of teachers to assess pupils’ progress and aspirations.
Praising the bond between students and his staff, he added: “The relationship the teacher has with each pupil is all-important – how else can they pitch challenge correctly? The trust and understanding between the adults and children at Chafyn Grove is fostered by our policy of ensuring that no teacher just teaches.
“All offer clubs, teams and pastoral support. The more guises in which teachers and pupils encounter each other, the more meaningful the relationship becomes.
“Something as simple as sitting with the children at lunch reaps invaluable dividends.”
Janet Watts at Farleigh School also acknowledged that schools are most effective when they develop their students’ personal as well as academic abilities.
Farleigh measures its success by tracking cognition – academic progress – and character, such as the development of life skills.
Janet added: “We have also introduced a new online academic tracking system which enables us to monitor each child’s attainment in subjects across the school. These reveal attainment progress in each subject.”
Queen Victoria School’s Alistair Bryce told us that attributing success purely to exam results provides an “oversimplified” view of education.
He added: “We regularly emphasise the holistic development of both character and citizenship in order to best prepare students for an ever-changing world.
“Developing key aptitudes that provide strong foundations for our pupils after school is very important. Developing resilience, inquisitiveness, manners, perseverance, ambition and teamwork are essential to succeed in the modern world.
“Success is a continuous journey rather than a one-way street – when we stop trying, we fail.”
In the classroom, Warminster School ensures that all of its students are presented with aspirational goals to help them see what could be achieved with consistent effort.
And while that can be a winning tactic in producing good exam results, Mark Sully pointed out that it also carries a number of fringe benefits.
“What are difficult to measure are the soft skills that pupils learn along their journey – be it independence, resilience, determination or leadership.
“All of these are learnt at Warminster School without necessarily leading to a public exam result.”
Rachel Rees, head of sixth form at Monmouth School for Girls, pointed to the school’s strong pastoral support as a key tool in providing students with the perfect platform to excel and the self-belief to feel that anything is possible.
She explained: “We are particularly pleased that the boys and girls achieve such outstanding academic results while also contributing with great energy and enthusiasm to the many areas of our co-curricular programme.
“We foster a can-do attitude and encourage students to seize every opportunity on offer during their time with us.”
With no two children learning in the same way, taking an individual approach to education is a key component of life at Malvern St James.
Headmistress Olivera Raraty wants each pupil to achieve their personal best and encourages them to have a go and learn from their mistakes.
“Having the courage to attempt something that is new or different or a little bit scary is the hallmark of successful individuals,” she explained. “It’s something that we gently encourage in all of our pupils.”
Whatever grades a student has under their belt when they graduate, it is clear that exam results are just one piece of the wider educational jigsaw.
Viewing children as individuals and nurturing their personal development and interest in a range of activities and subjects sits at the centre of successful schools, as Vinehall School’s Joff Powis concluded.
“A Vinehall child is a happy, busy and confident young person who communicates effectively with others and understands the importance of teamwork in a community,” he said. “At the end of their time at the school, the children are thoroughly prepared for the next stage of their lives.
“They are active, positive young people with a range of interests, well-educated in a broad sense.
“The start they have had academically, in the creative arts, through sports and in terms of confidence and personal development puts them in a strong position for future success in whatever terms suit them as an individual.”