Preparing for exams
As exam season creeps gradually closer, we have this advice for students preparing for their GCSEs and A-levels - thanks to Ian Thorpe, the headmaster at Downsend School.
Exam klaxon! Less than three months until your kids sit their GCSE and A-Levels. Cue blind panic – and that’s just the parents! It’s a tough time for students, and as E-Day creeps closer it’s normal for them to feel anxious and overwhelmed. But preparation is key – and the earlier they start, the better.
At Downsend School in Leatherhead, there’s a lot of emphasis on helping students prepare for exams. And since the school is expanding to include a senior school up to GCSE from September next year, we’ve consulted the headmaster Ian Thorpe for advice on how to prepare for the exam season. Over to you Ian…
In 2017, the Department of Education commissioned a survey to examine the provision schools offer to promote character education and to support the mental health of pupils and students. In looking forwards towards creative ways of achieving this, we want to give our next generation of students, who will stay with us to GCSE, the skills to enjoy, rather than endure school. Namely, a skills-based education that is based on their ability to adapt rather than to simply recall and regurgitate knowledge in order to pass exams. It is these skills that will better prepare them for exam success and a life beyond school.
Build gradually, so that pupils can peak at the right time
Two years ago, we abandoned Mock exams in November for our Year 8 pupils resulting in an 8% increase in A*-B grades at Common Entrance. Continual assessment within the classroom, against ‘bite-sized’ targets followed by a ‘formal’ set of mocks in March avoided the burn out many children can face by the time the exams start in earnest. Practice does make perfect and all students experience exam style conditions and are encouraged to complete test papers and questions as part of their preparation to make the unfamiliar familiar and second nature so there are no surprises.
Focus on individual goals, rather than rankings
All of our pupils have individual targets to work towards. We find that if pupils believe they can achieve the targets with our encouragement and support, they work hard and actively engage with a process of continuous improvement. Every year our pupils are celebrated for all their personal bests inside and outside the classroom.
Build problem-solving capacity
When faced with an exam question that is not like any that have been practised, it calls for a calm and problem solving approach. We adopt a problem solving, cross curricular approach to teaching and learning early to promote skills-based learning. All Downsend children are encouraged not to panic, to look with a new focus, to be brave and have the confidence to overcome the challenge in front of them.
Create an environment where pupils have breathing space
It’s important that pupils get some time out from the busy school day and, especially in the run up to exams, to have breathing spaces where they can go for ‘down time’. We know this goes beyond the normal bag room and Study Centres, which is why the new Downsend expansion will include ‘areas of calm’ using lighting, colour and creative displays to develop reflective areas that are calming and relaxing.
Keeping the balance
Music, drama and sport are always a perfect antidote to relieving exam pressures and clearing the mind and our children access all three within our balanced curriculum. Additionally, children gain confidence through music and drama performances in front of audiences. At the end of March, our five rock bands performed to an audience of around 500 people without batting an eyelid. Likewise, with sport our children took part in over one thousand sporting fixtures last year, experiencing all of the highs and lows that these fixtures brought. Collectively, all of these experiences help to develop genuine character and resilience amongst our pupils whilst maintaining the all-round balanced education we believe in.