Sunday Times Education blog: testing times for all

The Sunday Times, 17.04.16 former HMC Chairman Bernard Trafford, Headmaster of leading independent The Royal Grammar School in Newcastle on how schools and parents can work together to support pupils through the exam period.

Exam period. A tough time for pupils and parents alike. Yes, parents too. You try not to put pressure on your children yet you desperately want them to do well. But you can’t win: urge them too strongly during the revision period and you’re accused of nagging; keep your distance and don’t comment and your reticence might drive the kids to screaming point.

There’s no single way to get it right. Schools and parents must do what they can to reduce the pressure, and thus lower levels of anxiety as far as they can. But it’s easier said than done.

Interestingly, informal surveys recently carried out within a few independent schools I’ve been working with found that the major cause of stress and anxiety for children was neither school nor parents. It was a self-driven motivation, an anxiety to do well so as not to let anyone down.

That accords with my experience as a head. We really do try not to push our youngsters unreasonably but our high expectations, our hopes for them, apply pressure.

We must try to break that vicious circle.

In that grim revision phase, schools and parents can work together. The parent who is accused of “not understanding” may usefully quote the school’s advice that students shouldn’t try to revise solidly for more than an hour at a time. They need to move, stretch their legs, have a drink. After a few hours they need fresh air: “Healthy mind in healthy body” is more important than ever at this time. In school we tell them that constantly.

Still treading on eggshells, parents may need to intervene when it’s just getting late: “Come on. That’s enough for today. Watch some TV and then go to bed.” They need to switch off, even if they don’t want to, and they’re already short of sleep (we tell them that too).

They’re not all angels. Take the 16-year-old who isn’t putting enough work in for GCSEs. Use the same technique. Persuade them to do 45 minutes, then have a break. Rewards help: two hours’ work followed by the favourite TV programme.

They may want to fight us, but they’re still children who need to know we’re there for them. Sometimes, when it’s all got just too much and parents can’t find the right words, a simple hug might help. Reassurance, knowing they’re cared for — no need to frame those awkward conversations, to avoid mentioning the anxieties about exams, the chemistry they still don’t understand, the maths they never will. Silent love works.

No one said parenting was easy and no one gave you training for it. You find your way through it as best you can.

Finally, what do you do when your child comes home from school, the frustration bursts and a tsunami of resentment, rage and panic engulfs you?

Just mumble meaningless encouragement while you get the food ready. Never believe a teenager, however angry and misjudged they feel, until they’ve recharged their blood sugar levels. Get some tea down them, then see how they feel. If they’re still worried there may indeed be something you need to take up with school, but even kids take a more measured view of things on a full stomach.

When the teenager goes off to revise again, you may pour yourself a glass of wine and worry. But don’t fire off an email. Whether some poor teacher checks emails at night or first thing, your digital offloading won’t have been helpful.

Have another glass instead. The cold light of dawn will restore balance and a sense of perspective. Then you and school can talk it through productively – if necessary.

It’s a team effort. You keep the show on the road by maintaining the routines, being there, caring and supporting. Meanwhile, school is there in the background. We teachers have seen generations of children go through this. We won’t make light of problems; we won’t pretend it’s all easy. We can and do offer understanding and practical wisdom when you’re at your wit’s end.

Between us, we will all get through it.

Trust me. I know. I’m a teacher.

Bernard Trafford is headmaster of Royal Grammar School in Newcastle upon Tyne

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