Put to the test

23rd May 2008 at 01:00
Never mind the overwrought teenagers - the crying girls and edgy boys - think about the stressed teachers, says Diana Hinds
Never mind the overwrought teenagers - the crying girls and edgy boys - think about the stressed teachers, says Diana Hinds

As another exam season gets underway, much energy and attention is devoted to the stresses on the nation's teenagers. But spare a thought for their teachers, who feel the strain no less keenly. After all the effort they have put in, this is crunch time. Have they prepared their classes sufficiently? Have they been exhaustive in their revision? Is there anything more they could have done to ensure their pupils come out of the exams with the grades that they deserve?

As Vanessa Buckley, RE teacher at The Grange School in Cheshire, says: "You can prepare them for exams, you can give them the material, the knowledge and the understanding, and you can teach them the techniques they need to ensure they are competent. However, the one thing you can't do is learn it for them. Even after 30 years of teaching, this still causes me stress."

"My main worry is: have I prepared them well enough?" says Philip Woodey, assistant head and history teacher at Four Dwellings High School, Birmingham. "If children don't do well, is it my fault? Is there something I could have done? Any self-respecting teacher is going to question themselves - and it is nerve-racking."

When Vivian Hill, director of professional educational psychology training at the Institute of Education in London, carried out research looking at exam stress on children, what emerged was the stresses felt by teachers - especially in schools struggling to improve their results.

Many felt that a single year group with a disproportionate number of children with special needs, or children with English as a second language, could distort results in a way that was often not recognised. Inner-city schools with volatile populations were hardest hit. "The teachers were expressing a gross sense of injustice," she says. "It's not only pupils who are subject to constant scrutiny, it's the teachers, too."

League tables have long exerted pressure on teachers, and the new requirement for English and maths GCSE results to be included has only exacerbated it, says Vivian.

Philip, who is responsible for target-setting at Four Dwellings High School, is acutely conscious of this. Last year, the school improved by gaining 34 per cent five A*-C grades at GCSE. But it dropped to 19 per cent when English and maths were included, which placed the school under the Department for Children, Schools and Families' spotlight.

"At a school like ours you have to fight for every grade, and that does create tension," he says. "Even before you get to the exams, you know it's going to be an uphill struggle."

Deciding which pupils should receive extra classes is another source of anxiety. "It tends to be the C-D borderline children - but then your conscience kicks in, because we are an inclusive school and every child matters."

Vanessa says exam preparation has become much tougher for teachers now that public exams begin in late April, rather than early June. "Teaching time has been reduced by at least a month, which increases the stress on teachers as they try to get through all the material and cope with pupils missing lessons because they are doing early exams."

Time management is the toughest aspect of the exam season for Dr Paul McKeating, head of chemistry at North London Collegiate School, who has been teaching for four years. "The girls here are motivated, they all want extra help and do lots of past papers for you to mark. It's hard to find the time for all the other things you have to do, such as timetables and schemes of work for next year."

Mark Bynoe, assistant head of Stoke Newington School, north London, teaches ICT, but has to arrange most of his revision classes outside school time because it is a non-core subject. "It's stressful getting pupils through all the work and revision that needs to be done. Getting them to come in for extra lessons is hard - and the pupils who don't turn up are the ones who need it most. Last year I went to their houses and dragged them out."

Teachers also have to cope with children's behaviour, which invariably suffers at this time of year. Some pupils have "more edge" to them as they near the end of compulsory education, says Philip. Others become overwrought, says Amy Svoboda, who teaches maths at City of London School for Girls. "They cry, they might snap at you, they come to see you in horrendous states saying they can't cope. I always give exam classes my email address."

And the pressure on teachers doesn't stop with the exams. Many teachers describe the anxiety that builds up over the summer as results loom. "It doesn't seem to matter how many years I've been teaching, I never sleep the night before results," says Vanessa.

Results can bring anything from exhilaration to downright despondency. "It's a great day, a really cathartic day," says Paul. "They have done what they should have done and you feel good."

Philip is circumspect. "If we don't make our targets this year and we're at the lower end, I know that cringing, sick feeling I've had in the past will return and there will be much more pressure."


Mark Bynoe, assistant head and ICT teacher, Stoke Newington School, north London

"We were doing a coursework-based ICT exam and with two pieces of coursework due in at the same time, the new computer upgrades failed. We spent two to three weeks unable to do the work we should have been doing. In the end we had to spend four weekends in school for the pupils to come in and complete the work. They did, but all of that could have been avoided."

Philip Woodey, assistant head and history teacher, Four Dwellings High School, Birmingham

"About 10 years ago, we got 5 per cent A*-C grades at GCSE. It made me feel sick. You knew all the pressure that would come to bear. It was like being kicked in the stomach and knowing this wasn't going to go away."

Vanessa Buckley, RE teacher, The Grange School, Cheshire

"A few years ago, a batch of A-level results was marked lower than it should have been. I was upset, and so were the pupils. We sent them back for remarks, and the marks went up - but it was too late for one girl, who missed her place at Oxford."

Amy Svoboda, maths teacher, City of London School for Girls

"My first Year 9 pupils were my 'golden group', and my expectations were unrealistic. When they got their GCSE results and a few got Bs who I'd hoped would get As, I was desperately disappointed - although they were quite pleased."


- "The more organised and in control you are, the less stressed you will feel." - Vanessa Buckley, RE teacher, The Grange School, Cheshire

- "Working in teams is important. Encourage dialogue between staff and a non-judgemental approach, so they feel confident enough to talk to each other about their concerns." - Andrew Merchant, deputy head, William de Ferrers School, Chelmsford, Essex

- "Strong senior management teams that support teachers and set realistic targets, help schools manage stress better. Managers should be aware of changes in the school population, so teachers are not made to feel they've failed the school if results dip." - Vivian Hill, director of professional educational psychology training, Institute of Education, London

- "Go out for drinks with other teachers after work, so you can have a good talk about children who need to pull their finger out. It makes it easier for you to switch off when you get home." - Amy Svoboda, maths teacher, City of London School for Girls

- "Don't deviate from your time lines. Stick to your schemes of work and allow a couple of extra weeks for any problems." - Mark Bynoe, assistant head and ICT teacher, Stoke Newington School, London

- "Exercise helps to get rid of nervous energy. I do a lot of mountain biking." - Dr Paul McKeating, head of chemistry, North London Collegiate School.

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