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Marathon task for GCSE candidates

Asking most children to sit still for three hours and write is like asking somebody used to walking down the street to run a marathon, according to a leading educational psychologist.

In the week when some 700,000 children are sitting down for their GCSE exams, Harrison Jennings, general secretary of the Association of Educational Psychologists, says that the stress children suffer from exams is getting worse. Not only are they sitting more exams, they are also being told that failure to pass them will consign them to a life of unemployment. And too many schools, he says, do not help by instructing them in exam technique.

"Schools are so constrained by getting through the curriculum and imparting as much subject matter as possible, that no teacher seems to see it as their role to talk about the techniques of study, revision and exam preparation.

"For most children, the first time they are ever required to sit still for three hours in silence is the trial GCSE exam. It's the only time they're asked to write for three hours continuously.

Mr Jennings, who was until his appointment to the association a senior educational psychologist in Sheffield, says most schools do not want to see their fifth and sixth-form exam candidates after Whitsun. So pupils are cut off from quiet rooms, access to staff and an ordered and disciplined structure at the very time when they should be doing their exam preparation. Instead, it is all left up to parents.

This breeds stress between parents and children, he says. The children use their freedom to stay in bed in the morning and go out at night and, when parents protest, say they know how much work they've got to do.

"Both parties know it's not right," he says. "The child knows it and won't admit it; the parent knows it but can't enforce it."

Mr Jennings stresses that good schools have always prepared their pupils well for exams and that a growing number are now taking more trouble about revision and exam techniques to boost their performance in league tables. Evening revision classes are on the increase.

But he says all schools should, in the two-year run-up to GCSE and in the sixth form, treat the teaching of exam technique as part and parcel of the subject matter. This should include tips such as reading all sections of the paper before embarking on it.

Schools should also build up pupils' ability to sit still for three hours, which he describes as "some fair feat of physical endurance". And candidates should be encouraged to get their hand muscles in training by taking notes while revising.

"What matters," he says, "is the proof that somebody is actively concerned about whether they get a good mark in the exam - and not just about imparting a body of facts."

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