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 Sarah Matthews, deputy head at St Mary’s Shaftesbury, to find out…

How did your most recent crop of exam age students fare?
We had fantastic A Level results at St Mary’s Shaftesbury this August with the vast majority of girls securing a place at their university of choice. Teachers and girls alike relished the challenges of the reintroduction of linear A Levels and this was borne out by superb marks. The school scored As and A*s across the board in some subjects, including Spanish, Geography and Photography.

In our GCSE results, 82 per cent of all marks were grade A*-B, with four students achieving at least 11 GCSEs at grade A*-A!

What do these results mean to the school and its teaching staff?
We always focus on the ‘value added’ element of girls’ success, as well as the, obviously exciting, headline figures about girls getting top marks across the board. Often staff share the most joy with a student who’s achieved a B, having not been predicted such a mark on their arrival at the school. At St Mary’s our approach has always meant we score highly in such ‘value added’ metrics.

Every year we’re also so impressed by how our girls manage to combine so much out-of-classroom activity with their excellent GCSE and A Level grades. Our Sixth Formers are frequently involved in Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, working in the local community, high grade music exams and performing in school productions as well as carrying out leadership roles in the school. It’s quite staggering that they can manage all of this, and get the grades they need for their Higher Education choices.

Beyond grades, how do you measure “success” in the classroom?
Obviously, we want the girls to be happy; happy with their own achievements, and happy that they’re really 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.

They are mentored by each other as well as the staff here, and the ‘St Mary’s Spirit’ is invaluable during exam times. This kind of resilience and feeling confident that you are well supported allows girls to flourish and do their best.

How do you put students at ease during the exam season?
As well as preparing them well academically, and backing up classroom learning with study skills they’ve been taught since their youngest years at St Mary’s, we make sure all our girls maintain a sense of 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.

We also have a superb health centre team who make a variety of services available to the girls throughout the year; nutritional consultations, sports massage, aromatherapy and counselling, which they know they can access all the time. There’s no stigma attached to asking for help when it’s needed.

Find out more about St Mary’s Shaftesbury at

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