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We are almost there, the end feels tantalizingly close – in just a couple of months, the GCSE exams will have concluded.  The exhausting slog through dozens of hours of exams, and hundreds of hours of revision will finally be over for our Y11 pupils. So, this feels like an apt moment to reflect on this annual trial of adolescent stamina.

During the Lent Term, we continued teaching pupils in the most upbeat and engaging manner we could muster. For some subjects, new content was still being delivered, in others they started to consolidate information from previous years – each department chooses how best to prepare pupils for their GCSE and that approach is rightly bespoke for the subject.

What is common, is that teachers have firmly transitioned to ‘exam preparation mode’ with their Y11 classes. This is a sad necessity, and with it sees a slight departure from our routine academic ethos. Normally, we would want to shun the ‘do we need to know this for the exam?’ type mentality, and exclusively indulge in that process of learning our subjects, simply for the intellectual joy that it brings. Not at this stage of Y11. We now find ourselves embroiled in a tactical game, allied with the pupils, in battle against an exam board foe.  Whether it be “how exactly do you write a ‘six-marker’?” or “what mnemonic can we use to remember the names of the alkanes?”, we are cynically focussed on precisely what is needed for every loophole of the upcoming papers. This might sound reassuring, but it’s actually not as easy as it sounds. One needs quite a lot of patience and discipline to set about the hundredth past paper question of the week with fresh energy and intelligence. This style of learning is not the most stimulating, but that kind of repetitive practice is really good preparation for doing well at the final test. I think we need to acknowledge with the pupils that they’ve got a tough job to do, and think about our role in supporting them.

Let’s start by reflecting upon our motivation as adults, for the children to do well. Some would believe that I want them to do well because I want the school results to look good, and that will make me, and my colleagues look like masterful professionals. Other pupils will think their parents want them to do well because it will make them proud, and feel like they’ve done a good job as parents. Some children will think we want them to get good results because this will lead to a good career in the future.

I don’t think any of those arguments are particularly strong – I certainly don’t care about the headline exam results figures, even if they serve a very crude purpose for admissions; I don’t think many parents want their children to do well in order to make themselves feel better, and I don’t think most future careers will be dependent on how people perform aged 16, although a tiny number of doors might swing open or partly closed.

So why do we push them to do well? For me, GCSEs are about giving young people an opportunity to validate their efforts. I want them to learn how their careful planning, exhaustive practice, collaboration, creativity and simple hard work can materialise into something.  On results day I want them to be able to reflect with pride that they did something positive for themselves. We ought to give them the best possible chance at experiencing that sense of purpose and pride. It’s not about whether they can remember the chambers of the heart, or quote proficiently from Shakespeare, it’s about whether they have grown as learners and as people by the end of it. I hope that having this experience of a high-stakes moment in their lives will build their resilience and make them more equipped to tackle the next challenge, whether it be their A Levels, completing a degree, building a company, getting a job or training for a marathon – all of these things bring emotional rewards and psychological growth – their personal journey is what gives me the motivation to keep pushing them, certainly not a string of numbers on a spreadsheet.

So, how can parents best support their children? Focus on the process, not the outcome.

  • Reward time, effort, and application, not grades
  • Negotiate how best to support the child – how do they want to be held to account by you? You will have your red lines regarding what you think they should or shouldn’t be doing, but let them have some agency over how their work at home is structured and what your role is.
  • Where are they working?
  • Do you know their revision timetable?
  • What will the consequence be if they don’t stick to it?
  • How are they managing their phone use?
  • How are rewards and time off built into their schedule?
  • Don’t compare them to their peers, siblings, or yourself!

And when results day eventually dawns, just be present to offer unconditional love and support; whether your child is feeling ecstatic, ambivalent or dismayed, they will have surely taken a satisfying stride forward towards adulthood.

Janelle Budinski, one of our Senior School Wellbeing Practitioners, offers some more advice on how to cope with exam anxiety here.


Arthur Dabrowski About the author
Arthur Dabrowski, Head of Middle School
Arthur joined Highgate in 2008 to teach Chemistry, which he still loves doing, and has also been Head of House and Head of Science along the way. Beyond school, he enjoys water polo and running, demonstrating enthusiasm over talent in both sports.