Preparation is all
At Mayfield School we are strong advocates of independent learning alongside classroom teaching: encouraging individual students to take responsibility for their own learning. While passing exams is not the be-all-and-end-all of education, it is important, so learning how to revise and prepare for exams and practising ‘exam technique’ is essential. It’s not just enough to know your subject inside out (although that helps!), but you need to know how the examiner wants you to present this information. It is more help to use poor mock results positively as a focus for what needs to be done, rather than as a stick to be beaten with.
Beware: the length of time spent locked away in a room does not always have a direct correlation with results achieved, especially if that time is spent with a mobile or internet access of any sort. Nor, sadly, does ostensibly virtuous time spent on revision always mean students are directing their energies effectively.
Revision can’t begin without the original ‘vision’, so ideally your child has worked consistently through lessons and in study throughout the course, and so has good notes. Of course, that is frequently not the case, so confirming all the right information is in place is a positive start. An organised folder can be a good sign. Also, encourage them to revise all their topics regularly and often – short bursts of reviewing their notes is helpful and means things don’t get out of hand and too much is left to the last minute.
Organising revision time
Supporting your child and encouraging them to plan realistic revision timetables that begin well in advance and which allow time for relaxation is key. Last minute cramming only serves to increase the pressure and anxiety that your child is already under, and this can be extremely detrimental to attainment and general well-being, not to mention family life. It can also mean there are areas which haven’t been revised thoroughly. Letting them take calculated risks: ‘I will learn x and y but not z as it probably won’t come up…’ are not advised. The better prepared your child feels, the less nervous they will be on the day.
This doesn’t mean that every waking moment outside lessons has to be devoted to revision. Plan ‘down time’ and time off when your child can see friends, play sport or do whatever it is that helps them to relax. They need to have fun on their revision breaks. Studying 24/7 is not helpful – and retaining perspective is. The key, as ever is balance: too frequent breaks, or those which extend are obviously counter-productive. Setting targets and awarding rewards can be helpful, but this needs to come from your child and not from you.
Study leave and last push
Some schools offer study leave, others continue until the last minute. Study leave can be a good opportunity for students to take responsibility for their own learning and prioritise their revision. At Mayfield, when study leave begins, teachers remain available during lesson times for individual or small group tuition. Supervised study continues in school and most girls attend. Those who find being self-disciplined difficult are expected to attend.
Study leave should not mean staying up late and
revising, then not getting up until lunchtime. A good routine is vital, as many exams begin at 8.30am, as are regular and sensible meals. Breakfast on the morning of an exam is imperative.
Healthy mind: healthy body
At Mayfield, we arranged a series of lectures for parents and teachers from the Self-Esteem Team, a trio of women aiming to promote positive mental health. The first lecture covered a range of issues impacting teenage mental health, including exam stress, and one of the key things we took away from the session was the importance of getting enough sleep.
Teenagers need nine hours sleep to function properly and screen-based activity in the hour before bed can negatively impact this. It makes sense to turn off all devices and relax before bed. Winding down with a bath, or reading a (non-school) book is good; Snapchat and the like less so. On average children are disturbed for an hour per night, usually by their phones. This is not good at any time, and certainly not in the run up to and during vital and important public examinations.
Helpless parent syndrome?
As a parent, used to protecting and taking responsibility for your child, it is often difficult to accept you cannot do the work – or sit the exam for them. You may well feel helpless and panicky, but don’t let it show. No matter how nervous you may be, don’t allow your own experience of school exams to affect your child. Be realistic. Not all students are going to achieve A* grades and nor should we expect them to. We must celebrate individual achievements and successes rather than measuring them against others.
All you need is love
Your role is unique: to be a parent, not a friend, not a teacher, and to support your child through what is probably the first, but undoubtedly won’t be the last, major, stressful experience of their lives. Different children react in different ways and need different support. Whatever you do will be wrong – at the time. Try to be patient. Put up with mood swings as much as you can, but don’t encourage them. While I am the last person to condone rudeness and self-indulgence, even I would advise leniency and the occasional biting of tongues and overlooking of chores left undone. The run up to examinations is not the time for home truths or pitched battles over the washing up. Children need to know that you have confidence in them and that the world will not end if an exam doesn’t go as well as expected. They need to be loved for who they are, not how many A*s they achieve.
■ Antonia Beary is headmistress at Mayfield School, a leading Catholic independent boarding and day school for girls aged 11 to 18. She is also currently Chair of CISC and Hon Sec of GSA.