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'Year 11, you will survive your GCSEs. Here's how'

Exam season is underway and Year 11s will be frantically revising. Here one teacher offers her survival guide

Exam boards should engage more with the media to explain what they do, says researcher

Exam season is underway and Year 11s will be frantically revising. Here one teacher offers her survival guide

Dear Year 11,

You are about to enter one of the most significant phases of your life so far. This GCSE period will pave the way for so much of what comes next in your lives. You will be nervous and maybe a little bit excited, too, at this single chance to show off all you have learned.

Much as we might love to, your teachers cannot sit these exams for you or change the system back to one in which we were allowed to assess you ourselves. We will, quite literally, be waving you off at the entrance to the exam hall and won’t know what the papers contain until you come out and tell us. We sometimes wish we could wave a magic wand to ensure that you get the very best grades that you deserve – but we can’t. This is it. The moment you’ve been building up to for months and years has arrived.

I’ve worked with several thousand students over the years, and I’d like to offer a few nuggets that I’ve gained over the years, in the hope that one or two of them might help you through.

1. You’re not alone

Revision and the sitting of exams can make you feel quite lonely and isolated. Whilst this has to be the case for the exams themselves, please know that there are so many people rooting for you: your friends, your families, your loved ones and your teachers and the support staff at your school.

2. Perspective

You will have experienced dozens of assemblies, pep-talks and countdowns reminding you of the importance and urgency of these exams. I’m not here to contradict these words. But I do urge perspective. Some of the most successful adults I’ve known have stumbled at various stages of their education and careers, and picked themselves up and taken a different route to success. This is one of several milestones in your life, which may include falling in love, travel, loss and possibly children of your own. Keep an eye on the big picture.

3. We don’t know what’s in the paper

Your efforts to second-guess the content of the papers are seriously admirable. I can see how you struggle to believe that we have no clue at all, in the modern age of endless communication, but I promise you, we don’t, Think Official Secrets and Non-Disclosure of MI5 proportions. We won’t know until after you find out. Don’t fall for speculation and limit your revision based on this – it would truly be a rookie error.

4. Chunk it down and build in wind-down time

I hope you’ve had some sleep and some fresh air this weekend. It’s easy for me to say, I know. My own daughter has her Sats, starting tomorrow, and wrestling practice papers off her in favour of relaxation and plenty of sleep has been a battle. But you won’t be your best self if you’ve exhausted yourself during evenings and weekends. Eat well, sleep and exercise. Break down your revision by topic and module and worry about one thing at a time. And when your head starts to hurt or you start to feel panicky, walk away for a bit. Not to shoot monsters on a computer screen, but to call a friend, visit the shops or take a long, relaxing bath.

5. Know what effective revision is – and what it isn’t

Stop the press: taking a revision guide from a teacher is not revising. Highlighting is not revising. Watching a video or staring at a book is not revising. You need to be doing something with the information – applying the formula, putting the quote in context, creating revision cards by topic and theme and adding your own thoughts and questions as you go. The best form of revision will vary by person. Sticking key info in places you spend lots of time – above the sink, on your bedroom wall – works well. Getting someone to test you or to listen whilst you explain a concept is also brilliant. Thanks to my parents, I can still quote a quadratic equation (though I admit I wouldn’t have the first clue what to do with it these days).

6. Ask for help

We all need help sometimes – even (or especially) those of us who appear to be coping really well and who smile and joke all the time. Identify your "go-to" person in school. If you’re worried about adding an extra burden to your already-stressed friends, make it an adult. Most of us will go out of our way to make time to listen – and sometimes this is all you need. And many of us will be able to unearth a healing bar of chocolate from a drawer somewhere.

Please don’t make the error of assuming that those around you are all OK or that your "high-flier" friends don’t need support. In fact, they may need it most of all. Look out for each other. Kindness is my favourite human quality of all time. Be kind. To yourself and to each other.

Wishing you courage and determination for the exam period ahead,

Your teacher. 

Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching

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