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We Want Our Students To Do Well In Their GCSEs – But We Must Be Wary Of Piling On The Pressure

Life isn't easy for today's Y11s, concedes Vic Goddard – but we should be careful that our well-intentioned support and interventions don't inadvertently make things even harder...

  • We Want Our Students To Do Well In Their GCSEs – But We Must Be Wary Of Piling On The Pressure

The inner thoughts of a young person during their last few weeks of Y11…

– In school by 7.45am for maths mentoring

– Lessons 1 and 2 are double psychology; we’re going over past papers and testing how much we know (or in my case, don’t know).

– At break time I sit with my friends and we talk about how much revision we’ve done. Some people say they’ve done none, others say they’ve done loads. I don’t really believe any of them.

– Another double lesson. More exam questions, but this time it’s English – which stresses me out the most, as they constantly tell us it’s the most important subject in school. I know the teachers are trying to help, but telling us that they have no idea of the grade boundaries, or what it actually takes to get a C ‘these days’ is not filling me with confidence…

– Maths now, only an hour. It’s bound to be more algebra. I hate algebra. If I say that out loud, all I hear is ‘Good – and that’s why we’re doing it.’

– 3.20 – lessons over. Well, not really over. I now have the ‘Additional learning opportunity’ of extra maths. Don’t forget the six days that I was in school over Easter. Or that I haven’t done PE for three months, due to my English ‘one to one’ lessons. It would have been good to do the school production this year – but Y11 are left out, as we have ‘Too much revision’ to do. We were banned from the ski trip, too, as we needed to be in school over Easter, and it would have been a distraction.

– I’m struggling to take much more in and I’m feeling anxious all the time.

– I CAN’T WAIT TO LEAVE SCHOOL.

Hammering home the message

Have any of your young people had any, or perhaps all of the above thoughts over the last few weeks? I’m certain mine have.

The issue has been particularly highlighted for me this year, as I’m teaching an exam group for the first time in a while. My colleagues are quite enjoying me having a GCSE maths class – but what they don’t know is so am I. Along the way, I’ve also learnt first hand about the impact of some of our decisions on both students and staff.

One of the aspects of being in Y11 that’s really been brought home to me is how much the pressure on staff to get results can be so easily be transferred onto our young people. I know that I’ve found myself repeatedly saying to my class how important their results are – without stopping to consider that they’re getting the same message from every one of their teachers, and how draining and stressful that must be.

It would be ridiculous to not be realistic about the profile of the examinations that these young people are all sitting, of course – but do I want the last memories they’ll have of their time at Passmores to be focused on us moaning at them?

Close to the edge

I fully agree with John Tomsett when he wrote this on his blog, “I am convinced that the best pastoral care for students from socio-economically deprived backgrounds is a good set of examination results”. However, applying the right amount of pressure to achieve this, and being able to judge when our young people are approaching breaking point, is really difficult.

I have had a few conversations with staff recently, who have been on the receiving end of teenage meltdowns provoked by them simply asking, supportively, “How’s the revision going?” We must all realise that collectively, we provide a great many important adults in our students’ lives, and that if we’re all ‘supportively asking’, that can be overwhelming.

As an 11-16 school I see the added strain of getting a place at one of the better sixth forms building as exams get closer. This is compounded by some providers quite openly saying that they’ll only take the best that apply, and that you’ll therefore have to ensure that you’re one of them. I’ve even seen prospective students stood in lines, ordered according to their grades; prize beasts at the front, the runts of the litter to the rear.

The need for balance

Our relentless drive to maximise the life chances of our young people can mean, as with the character of Littlechap in Stop the World, I Want to Get Off, that we – and more importantly, they – risk missing the good bits about right now.

High stakes accountability, combined with an ever changing assessment system, has led to some of us forgetting that we need to balance the experiences of our students right up to the end of their time with us. Of course, that balance will change and become more focused as exams approach – but a balance it still needs to be.

I know that John Tomsett got rid of his Easter revision classes, but I wasn’t that brave this year. I did make staff aware that there was no expectation from the SLT to do them – but I know that many of them did, so I’ll have to reflect on this for next year.

A final thought for the rest of the student population during this time. It’s important for us all to remember that they’re still with us, too, and need to be receiving the rounded education that we all want them to have, regardless of what’s happening for our Y11s.

And of course, we shouldn’t forget that as soon as the exams are over, the stress of looking right for the prom will be next – oh joy!

Vic Goddard is headteacher at Passmores Academy, as seen on Channel 4’s Educating Essex, and is the author of The Best Job in the World; for more information, visit or follow @vicgoddard

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