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29 April 2024

The Monday Briefing, 29th April: You'll See

The Monday Briefing, 29th April: Youll See

To study leave or not to study leave - that is the question.

As we draw towards exam season, and anxiety levels amongst the student (and staff) body grows exponentially, the yearly debate at this, and, I’m sure, many other schools, starts to rear its head.

At Ealing, we pride ourselves on encouraging the empowerment and independence for our students - to feel emboldened enough to make the right choices, and to forge their own paths in life. 

When it gets to this stage in the year, occurrences start to emerge where students begin to wrestle with somewhat of a dilemma: should I continue to come in to lessons, with the syllabus now being fully covered, mock exams reviewed and revision sessions underway; or should I stay at home and revise my way?

Instinctively, my response would always be to argue, in the strongest possible terms, for a student to come in. I am always vehement in my defence of this, and it is the case for several reasons:

- Routines which encourage peak performance at exam times - 9am and 2pm - should be kept so as to encourage students to do the best they can.

- Coming to College maintains the availability of critical resources which improve performance, particularly in terms of the ease with which teachers can be accessed.

- Maintaining a positive work-life balance, and keeping in touch with classmates at this time to help destress is an important aspect of protecting mental health.

- Students spend a great deal of time in the study room, the area where formal exams actually take place. This enhances their ability to visualise successful exam performance.

- When the inevitable crisis of confidence manifests itself amongst students, there is no one better to speak that through with than the teachers who are guiding them.

Getting away from it all - and an excuse often given is ‘I can’t revise at school - it’s so distracting’ - can be tempting. In the words of Peter Mortimore, in a Guardian article back in 2007, “living like a student, rather than a school pupil, is liberating and, for highly motivated and well-organised young people, can lead to an effective use of time.”

Conversely, he also makes the point that “study leave has increasingly been seen as potentially harmful to those who lack the self-discipline to get up, get organised and get down to work. The lure of computer games, daytime TV or the company of friends can be too tempting - especially, it is feared, for boys.”

His assertion that “The challenge for teachers, therefore, is how best to elicit those skills which, in addition to helping pupils cope with exam papers, also help them become more reflective, to cope with AS-levels or vocational courses and, ultimately, to be effective lifelong learners” is the point which carries most weight.

There are many students who appreciate what self-motivation looks like, know that they can make a revision plan and adhere to it diligently. They study because they want to, not because they have to.

Then there are those who, if full time study leave was granted, would simply be sleepwalking into underperformance, those who would employ passive revision techniques, straying from confronting the issues they display within their approach, and , usually, embedding those misconceptions and errors further.

When it comes to self-study, the skills are either there or they are not - and if there is any doubt whatsoever as to whether they are present - then College is the best place for those students.

Let’s take two strong examples. 

We have one student in Year 13, who has consistently scored either A grades or A* grades in their mock exams throughout their time here. Teachers are effusive in praise for their approach, and they are, above all, trusted to complete work to the highest standard possible. They are self-motivated, and have an offer from Cambridge University to study Law if the self-motivation was not enough. On top of that, they have exam access arrangements of being able to wear noise cancelling earphones, so the College environment could unsettle a well-worked approach. As soon as the Easter Mocks were completed, this student came to me and enquired about home study. I explained that this student was the sort of student who I could trust to take it and make the most of it, but also that I had expectations - regular contact with staff, and, were any barriers to learning to emerge, whatsoever, then these had to be confronted. Parents emailed me to support the decision of the student. Every single aspect of doubt as to whether this student could cope was removed from my mind, so I was happy to accede to the request.

Then we have another student, this time in Year 11. Performing generally on the borderline of grades 4, 5 and 6, perpetually late in the mornings, and, in one Biology lesson last week demonstrating precisely his inability to display effective revision strategies by ignoring teacher instruction to identify weaknesses and strengths in his approach, hence squandering a gilt-edged opportunity to make noticeable progress, and, with it, bringing criticism from his teacher. I received an email this morning from his father asking that he be excused from science lessons, to focus on others. I made a strong rebuttal, largely along the lines of this blog post.

According to Mortimore, “there are still schools that use study leave as an opportunity to ease out troublesome pupils,” a state of affairs which is the complete opposite of what should be happening. These are the students who need most guidance, not abandoning. Not that we, at the College, see them as troublesome - they just are not ready to go it alone.

DfE statistics make for a compelling link between attendance and performance. According to recent data, more than half (54%) of pupils who were persistently absent in Year 10 and then rarely absent in Year 11 passed at least 5 GCSEs including English and maths, compared to 36% of pupils who were persistently absent in both years. Though we’d be talking about only slight dips in attendance here in the final two weeks, they can still make all the difference.

I remember a discussion with our Head of Biology last year, where a group of Year 11s were sitting studying with him the day before the exam. He knew they would do well, not because they could regurgitate facts from a textbook to him, or because they could relay diagrams appropriately. The reason he was so convinced was because they were asking the right questions, and were active in trying to maximise their performance. 

Until students have reached the stage of knowing:

- What they need to prioritise

- How they go about studying that effectively

- Having a plan in place that they will stick to

- Knowing that they do not know it all and still need teacher input

Then they are still not ready to work while no one is keeping tabs on them.

In 2021, in the midst of Covid enforced changes, the DfE advised schools “design and plan content to support pupils to embed curriculum content in which they are less secure”. This remains exactly the right advice. The crux of the matter is whether they have the wherewithal to do it by themselves.

Employing a case by case approach is a good approach here. Whilst we will always encourage students to work in College, we are mindful of mitigating factors - a long commute, perhaps - which could help make sense the other way.

Dr Christine Carpenter, then Head at Sacred Heart High in Hammersmith, summed it up well in 2008, by saying that "I think there are pros and cons on both sides of the argument - some pupils definitely can do OK, can manage to work well at home - but I think there's a lot of support a school can give young people in the build-up to their exams. Learning to organise your work, learning how to sort your work out, doesn't come naturally to a lot of pupils - and if they're in school, we can help with that. And of course the other thing is that at home there are so many temptations to do other things, whereas at school it can be easier to focus."

Not much has changed since, other than the advent of more distractions in the lives of young people in the way of smartphones - and that would lead me to the conclusion that only in extreme cases is it right to disengage from school in the weeks leading to the exams. 

At the College, we offer leave on the day of the exam, and the 24 hours beforehand to ensure that a student is mentally prepared. 

Beyond that, the best place for study is the place where they have firstly learned the content, then how to deploy it effectively. It is where they have practised writing exams in a timed scenario, and the very location where they will be sitting them in a matter of weeks: College.

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