Attacking the Death Star: Getting Y11 ready for exams.


Exam season is upon us. We are all anxious, on the behalf of our pupils because we know their results will change their lives, and ourselves because we know the figures will mark out the beat to which we will dance next year. Twitter and Facebook are ablaze with creative ideas for revision techniques and lessons.

But there is little point worrying now. With the exams days or weeks away it is illogical to believe that much we do as the candle begins to sputter and gutter will make a huge difference to what will appear in the August results envelopes of our Year 11s. Any radical changes are more likely to be destabilising than impactful.

By now we’ve made our bets.

Like Luke on the final Death Star Run, we are locked in and committed.

Even if tinkering at the last minute does lead to some improvement, this is dwarfed into insignificance by the attitude of our young people. Either they’re at a point where they are ready to put in the revision hours or they are not, and if they are not it is almost always too late to do anything about it.

The truth, as frightening as it may be, is that the work should already have been done. Ideally it would have started in Year 7. Failing that, when GCSE course began. Failing that the beginning of Year 11. Hoping everything will be OK and only recognising it won’t be at Christmas, or worse Easter, is to invite all the wrong sort of tears on results day.

This post is not about what can be done at the last minute because I’m not sure much can be.

Instead, it is about what we, at TNA, have done from the beginning of the year to try and create a culture in which hard work and independent study are normalised. Early indicators that we’ve managed this are encouraging but this, of course, does not mean I am any less nervous about results. There’s a lot riding on them for all of us. But I can say, that if I were to rerun this year I wouldn’t change much. Annoyingly, this makes me even more anxious because if results aren’t better then we’ll have to question the bets we made back in September.

Here are the bets we made.

Bet 1: Decide on our key messages.

Back in September we thought hard about what our pupils needed to be clearest on. The first message we decided they needed to accept was that to be competitive in their summer exams they had to do at least two hours of work a day after school, and at least three hours at the weekend as a matter of routine. We also made sure they understood this was routine work, and that as the year rolled on more would be expected of them. This was something of a shock to some of our young people, but as we patiently and relentlessly repeated the message gradually it was accepted as true.

Our second message was our children should aim to feel proud of themselves for their hard work, not any specific grades they may or may not eventually achieve. Top grades aren’t realistic for everyone so talking about these is not an inclusive message. Target grades are flawed in too many ways to make these a fair way of judging whether pupils have been successful or not and the inherent unpredictability of exams means that there is no real way of knowing, certainly at an individual level, whether work will equate to a grade pupils are aiming for.

Finally, lots of talk about grades makes children of all abilities anxious, which makes it harder for them to focus on doing the things they need to do to improve.

By making the work the point, all our young people know they can be successful. Our hope is that good results will be a side effect of this, but we don’t want disappointed children who have worked hard to feel we aren’t proud of them.

Bet 2: Provide revision resources for all pupils.

One of the biggest issues caused by vanishing textbooks during the Great Stupidity, was that we took away resources pupils needed to revise from. As well-crafted and helpful as they may be, electronic copies of PowerPoints, online resources and summary sheets can never be adequate replacements. Our Trust has now written brilliant booklets for all subjects in the curriculum but many of these were produced too late for our Y11s.

To compensate for this we bought every pupil in Y11 a revision guide for every subject they study. These were handed out in a sort of formal ceremony, where the teachers who sourced them and the administrative staff who collated were thanked publicly, to make pupils aware of the investment we had made in them. We encouraged teachers to use these in lessons as much as appropriate as well as using them for homework, so that our young people were used to them a long time before they’d need to be really used in earnest. As far as possible without interfering with subject experts, we encouraged teachers to make sure that all revision or homework set should be tied to a specific resource the pupil already had. No ‘here’s a question, go away and google the answer’.

Every task is logged on MILK, our homework app, which means parents are able to see what needs to be done and by when. If work needs to be done on a computer (for example Hegarty Maths), and they don’t have one, then we provide it.

Bet 3: Overcommunicate

Everything we want Y11 to do is communicated again and again. And again. This starts at the school gates in the morning and after school when SLT, pastoral leaders and teachers stand at the gates and repeat, like a mantra, “tell me what revision you did last night?” or “What are your revision plans for this evening?” If pupils look shifty or admit they didn’t do anything, we, without anger (which never works) ask “why?” with pantomimed faces of confusion and concern. If there is a genuine reason they can’t work, we do all we can to fix it.

All expectations and notices are sent out to parents by letter, texted, put on the website and sent out via MILK. If we feel messages aren’t getting to the right places for whatever reason we call and give them face to face. If we find it hard to get hold of home by phone, well we pay a visit.

The aim is that no child, ever, can say “we don’t know what we are supposed to be doing.”

Bet 4: Deploy pastoral support to make sure work gets done.

If results this year are strong the two people who I’ll be hugging the hardest will be Jason and Andy, our dedicated “Year 11 Enforcers.” Working from a designated office, their job is simply to get pupils doing what their teachers say they need to do. The system is simple. If a teacher think a pupil isn’t doing enough outside school, then they email Jason and Andy.

Their job is then done.

Jason and Andy work through a hierarchy of actions. Although specifically what they do for each pupil is left up to them, this might involve mentoring sessions, contacting home or more creative strategies. Perhaps the most remarkable action this year involved inviting in a serving army officer to talk to pupils who wanted to join the military about the importance of working hard academically as well as going to the gym.

That said, my favourite part of the week is probably watching them standing on the school gate at the end of the day and literally turning back pupils who may have ‘forgotten’ they had a revision session or study club.

This only works becausethey are relentlessly warm and positive. Our key message, that it is hard work we value, is repeated again and again and again.

Bet 5: Make hard work high stakes.

Many of our Y11s began talking about prom almost as soon as they walked through the school gates back in September. We know just how important this is to them and we harnessed this by setting very clear criteria, not only around behaviour as is I think quite common, but around specific volumes of work. While we do accept that volume in itself isn’t a perfect measure, it does fit with our key messages and makes the process fair and inclusive to everyone. Volumes of work are overseen and decided upon by our Directors of Learning.

Bet 6: Acknowledge but do not overpraise increased work.

As the year has gone on our Y11 cohort has stepped up and at times it has been thrilling to see.

It has been really hard to find the right line between acknowledgement and praise, but we’ve been careful. However excited we have become, we have purposely and effortfully remembered the aim is that hard work becomes regarded as normal and routine. Shouting at a whole year group they aren’t doing enough doesn’t do this, and nor does telling pupils that you are blown away by what they’ve done when all that’s really happening is basic expectations are being met. Instead, when we talk to our pupils we go for measured, calm and truthful.

In our last assembly, for the first time, I let slip a smile and told them that by and large they were doing enough now. And I think it went down well precisely because it was true.

Bet Seven: Know when to leave well alone.

We’ve done all we can now. Whether we’ve got them wrong or right, we’ve made our bets. We’re locked in our final death star run and anything else we do or say runs the risk of knocking our pilots off course, because it will make us look like we’re second guessing ourselves at the time we need them to trust us the most.

We’re standing back now, hoping and praying that the young people we love so much have done enough for their proton torpedo to land in just the right spot.


One thought on “Attacking the Death Star: Getting Y11 ready for exams.

  1. Pingback: They need to work harder… – Teach innovate reflect

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