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 Olivera Raraty headmistress of Malvern St James Girls’ School, to find out…
How did your most recent crop of exam age students fare?
We are delighted with this year’s public exam outcomes. In our A Level results, 28 per cent of entries achieved an A*, 54 per cent A*-A and 76 per cent A*-B. More than one third of girls gained three A* and A combinations. Overall, 91% of students achieved A*-C grades.
The exceptional results mean that the overwhelming majority of students have sailed into their first choice university and course. More than 60 per cent of pupils were holding offers for the top 10 UK universities, and five girls (out of a cohort of 61) went on to Oxford and Cambridge to read Mathematics, Biomedical Sciences, Modern and Medieval Languages, History and Politics and Engineering.
GCSE results were up again this year, reflecting a three year trend. 97 per cent of entries achieved A*-C grades, and 39 per cent of the year group achieved eight or more A*-A or 9-7 grades, with others coming very close. 12 per cent of pupils gained the top grade 9 in English, which puts them in the top two per cent of students in the country.
We are not a highly selective school, and this set of results shows the value-added of a MSJ education. Whatever a girl’s starting point, we will ensure that she has the very best teaching and learning experience which will allow her to achieve her personal best.
What do these results mean to the school and its teaching staff?
I think that all the staff at MSJ would agree that the success belongs to the girls who have put in the hard work and dedication. But as Headmistress, I recognise too the significant impact that my teachers and pastoral staff bring to the mix. The teachers’ contribution is, perhaps, obvious: the quality of teaching, the scrutiny of girls’ homework and independent study, and the energy and enthusiasm that they inject into lessons are all critical. Perhaps less obvious, but just as well-recognised at MSJ, is the significant impact that our pastoral care at school and in the boarding houses has on the girls’ examination outcomes. Girls who are happy and well-supported will always do better than those who feel unhappy, stressed and ‘alone’.
Another factor which contributes to our success at MSJ is that we do not ‘teach to the test’; we pride ourselves on the creativity and breadth of our curriculum, which inspires the girls to learn for the joy of it rather than to learn narrow modules by rote. This means that girls are far more self-motivated about independent study and are enthusiastic learners.
Ultimately it is a whole-school effort to support each student, and we are all so pleased for them when they achieve the grades they deserve.
Beyond grades, how do you measure “success” in the classroom?
At MSJ, we focus on a tailored approach to education. No two children are the same, so our academic expectations of them are not the same. What matters to us is that each child achieves her personal best, and achieves the qualifications that allow her to get to where she wants to be.
We work along the principles of the growth mind-set: being brave enough to have a go at something, learning from our mistakes, and using that learning to improve future efforts. We want pupils to fully engage with lessons, joining in discussions, experimenting with ideas and theories, and eventually to become subject ambassadors and club and society leaders. Having the courage to attempt something that is new or different or a little bit scary is the hallmark of successful individuals, and something that we gently encourage in all of our pupils from the Pre-Prep Department upwards.
All girls bring different interests and talents to the school, and we have some first-class musicians, actors, artists, sports women and a whole host more specialisms amongst our number. It is misguided to focus on academic success as the only kind of success. We all know that employers are looking for a number of soft skills which are not necessarily linked to academics: skills such as teamwork, determination, resilience, problem solving and creative thinking. Girls’ participation in all sorts of extra-curricular activities outside the classroom will help develop these attributes, and that’s why we offer over 60 different clubs and societies for girls to choose from. Whether they are entrepreneurs in Young Enterprise, debaters in Model United Nations or competing in one of our many sports, they are enhancing their social skills, having fun, gaining new experiences and improving their future employability.
How do you put students at ease during the exam season?
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.
Teachers and housemistresses work together with the wider pastoral team and parents, to make sure that girls feel that they are on top of their workload. We have superb sports facilities that they are encouraged to make use of: they can pound the treadmill in the gym, get into pilates and yoga, or workshop with our Chaplain to balance mind and body. During Year 10 all of our pupils will do a ten week taught programme about mindfulness.
On a practical level, guidance about planning their revision timetables and the most effective ways to study are drawn up well in advance. Girls get to practise revision techniques in the years leading up to GCSE and A Levels so there are no surprises. All teachers will do subject drop-ins for revision sessions and past paper practice during exam periods.
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.