Coping with exam stress

Andrew Foster is the Head of Performance and Learning at Colfe’s School, as well as Head of Education with Tougher Minds. He is also the lead teacher on the Tougher Minds programme at Colfe’s, which won the 2014 Independent School Award for Education Initiative of the Year. One of his chief responsibilities is teaching pupils how to cope with exam stress. With A’level results released nationally last week and GCSE results out this Thursday (20th), he shares his experiences of these key moments in school life.

Andrew also outlines how the Tougher Minds approach can be used to benefit pupils who receive positive results, as well as those who do not fare so well…

“The feeling is reminiscent of Christmas morning, only with a lump of coal a distinct possibility as well as a much longed-for X-Box.

Seeing that email arrive in the early hours is a stomach-churning moment. The information within is going to have a significant impact on the futures of your pupils and may well be directly consequential for you as well.

There may be other jobs that have similar pressure points but few where all the fruit of the efforts of the previous twelve months (and two, five or even thirteen years from the perspective of the pupil) are revealed in a single moment. These two August Thursdays, one after the other, stand apart from the other three hundred and sixty-three days of many teachers’ lives.

If you will allow me to draw a parallel with the closing scenes of the Eddie Murphy and Dan Akroyd movie ‘Trading Places’, on those Thursdays schools sometimes find themselves in a similar position to the commodities brokers’ floor at the moment the orange crop is announced, and they must be careful not to succumb to a similar data-induced panic. At a friend’s school, an on-the-day inquest into his department’s seemingly disastrous AS results was halted by the discovery that two column headings had been transposed on the spreadsheet and the results the pupils had obtained were in fact excellent.

While schools should take the long view, for the people opening the envelopes that may prove difficult. External examinations often provide the first real world consequences of a young person’s professional life. Previous poor test scores may have resulted in tellings off and detentions but GCSEs and A Levels can result in doors being closed with finality, to sixth forms, colleges and universities that the pupils have had their hearts set on.

I feel that schools have a responsibility to make sure that pupils know that even though they are unhappy with their results, good things can come from what is initially a difficult and upsetting event. Our preparatory school’s former headmaster John Gallagher wrote in his autobiography about his disappointment with his O Levels. However, that experience proved the spur to set out on a remarkable journey that took him from Lewisham, via the police, to New Zealand and a World Cup winners’ medal with the All Blacks. As Churchill, no stranger to setbacks himself, wrote, “success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.

That is a message that is more difficult to receive than it is to deliver, particular when its source is the same person that has been trumpeting the importance of the examinations since September. The increasing realisation in the teaching profession that we must do more to help children develop resilience is never more telling than on results day. I have had to comfort pupils in floods of tears over the one B amongst a swathe of A*s and As. We must help them develop better habits and techniques around attentional self-control so that they are able to both celebrate their undoubted achievements and respond with equanimity to those areas where they feel they could have done better.

Sometimes the cause of the upset is external to the individual’s own performance. Results day often leaves teachers scratching their head over how pupil X has been placed below pupil Y or above pupil Z when they know there was slim to no chance of that being justified by the exam scripts themselves. An increasingly important part of the job is knowing how the system works and how to press for rectification of these mistakes on the examination board’s part before they have lasting impact on the young person concerned. University places in particular can be jeopardised by a rogue examiner determined to downgrade anyone that fails to meet their own idiosyncratic interpretation of the mark scheme.

The other major cause of frustration is some universities’ lackadaisical approach to A Level Results Day. It was very disappointing last year to contact an admissions officer that had personally written to me, asking that I forward any promising candidates to him, only to find he was on holiday on the one day when the final composition of his first year intake was determined. The staff on duty had no authority to move beyond arbitrary admission criteria. The scrutiny that schools face from both external bodies and indeed the students themselves appears to be now falling upon the universities and I hope that they improve upon this aspect of their work, among others.

The downsides of results day tend to catch the attention, but it does offer one pleasure that is perhaps unique. There are occasions when one can observe with foreknowledge a pupil that has exceeded their own expectations nervously enter the hall, collect their envelope, steady themselves and then open it. To witness that moment, the moment at which a young person realises that his or her efforts have been rewarded is a privilege indeed. Roll on the 13th and the 20th – we are ready for you and everything that you bring.”

Andrew Foster.
Head of Performance and Learning at Colfe’s School and Head of Education with Tougher Minds.

Watch the following video to hear some Colfe’s pupils talking about their exam performances. They have all benefited from the Tougher Minds programme:

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