27 March 2023

The Monday Briefing: In Only Seven Days

The Monday Briefing: In Only Seven Days

I’ve noticed a remarkable change within some students in the College this week.

With mock exams commencing on Thursday, students have truly embarked upon the final run-in to the final exams. Sir Alex Ferguson used to call this point in the football season ‘squeaky bum time’ with good reason. Nerves start to fray and locating the resilience to ensure one’s approach remains focused becomes absolutely vital.

To begin, I’ll take the case of one of our particularly precocious students, who, it appears, is finally making the right choices in order to give himself a chance of fulfilling his sizable potential. Perennially late with his timekeeping and with homework, his approach can frustrate staff on a daily basis. He is, in many ways, the most infuriating of students to teach: bags of natural talent; courteous and polite only when on his own; a jester when around others. 

This week however, something changed…

Spending his hours between exams in the local library with the hard working students. Utilising every single second of time available to him in the exams. Showing a keen and eager approach when asking staff how he can prepare best for the challenges which lie ahead of him. How long it will last is anyone’s guess - but at least we know the passion is there.

Most schools up and down the country would never hold mock exams so late in the academic year - six days of teaching time is sacrificed for these assessments, and some would argue that these challenges further build stress for the students who sit them.

We take a completely different stance.

Last academic year, our mock exam scores at this point gave incredibly accurate forecasts for the students who sat them. Almost all students performed exactly to the level they had in our internal mocks during the final exams, or lifted their grades by one (or in some cases two). They provide the most manifest yardstick for students, providing abundant guidance for learning ‘blind spots’, pointing the direction for next steps in their preparation with it, and cementing confidence in affirming that they have found an approach which will yield success.

Of course, there are some students who come to the conclusion, through disappointing results, that disaster awaits if they pursue the plan they have adopted, but learning that now provides the chance still to turn things around. Though rare, I recall one GCSE student being prompted to action by some horrendous grades a few years back. She cut the distractions, found another gear and raised her Easter Mock grades by at least two in each subject. Sadly, she departed the College for pastures new at the end of that year, but this ‘shock therapy’ had provided her with enough options to follow the path which she desired.

Staff at the College take great pains to proceed through the course with purpose, in order to ensure that the entirety of the course content is covered by this point. This piece of mind then allows students to compartmentalise learning, with time to turn their minds to revision.

Assemblies over the last few weeks, particularly to our GCSE cohort have made clear just how important this period of preparation is - not just in terms of how to revise, but in terms of the mindset required to get the best from oneself. I kicked it off with a presentation which focused on the importance of finding one’s motivation, then actively pursuing it. Adrian, our Head of Maths, then built on this with a well received message regarding resilience and looking for marginal gains. James, the Head of GCSE, then extended this further, with a range of practical guidelines on how to ensure that revision ‘sticks’. The psychological research behind it made for a compelling final act in this trilogy of advice.

Running mocks like this is not an easy option.

It has been an incredibly hard working time for all staff, and I can see that they have been giving their all to help students, of whom many we have are particularly vulnerable to anxiety. With the end of term looming, it can be all too easy to slow up, to ease the pace and have staff and students taking a breather. On the contrary, we push harder: full practice exams in a compressed time period, with staff going above and beyond to get marking and feedback in order, before everyone gets a well-earned rest during the Easter Holiday.

The fact of the matter is that the seven days - six of exams, with a day of results, rewards and feedback - is the most pivotal week of the year in terms of preparation for the exams. More can be gained here than at any stage in preparation for them - whether that pertains to the content knowledge and exam skills to succeed or simply finding the requisite attitude to prevail.

I’ll describe another of our precocious students at this point. Formerly a school refuser, and having missed a great deal of the early years of secondary school, there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever about her ability. Sharp, creative and often sarcastic, she has revelled in the role of the underachiever who knows deep down that she has it within her to do well. Over the last few months, her presence at College has improved immeasurably, and, because of it, she has grown in confidence, almost beyond recognition. It is as if she has finally told herself ‘I am as good as anyone in this class, and now I’m going to prove it.’ 

Sometimes challenges like mocks unleash the competitive spirit required to get the best from oneself: to forego wasting time, and adopt an approach which is both urgent enough and substantial enough to bring about great success.

When the majority of students adopt such a mindset, the overall impact can be incredibly powerful, with the momentum sweeping along others around them.

Suddenly they start to see that what they do now really matters, not what they will do the day or week before the exams. Six weeks out, with such an approach, powerful, life changing transitions can take place.

As a teacher, when we see this in our students, the pride that one feels can be life-affirming. 

To know that such changes may never have taken place had these students not chosen to walk through the doors of the College is to understand how special the environment of EIC is: it can light the fire of self belief in even the hardest of self-doubters.

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