Why you shouldn’t stress about exams

Headington, like schools everywhere, has gone into a special phase which happens at this time every year. After ‘muck-up day’ saw a joyous outbreak of mirth, practical jokes and some creatively outlandish fancy dress costumes, silence now reigns supreme as our eldest girls have gone off on study leave, ready for the serious business of external exams.

This year nationally the spotlight is shining on the pressure exams and assessment places on young people and the impact this could have on their mental health. We are not just talking about the final exams on which university and career decisions rest but also those for very young children. The SATs taken by some primary-aged children have this year been surrounded by controversy, confusion and anger. News reports claim that children were reduced to tears by a reading test branded by some as too hard. ChildLine has reported a significant increase in the number of counselling sessions it provided for exam stress in school pupils.

What is often forgotten in the anger over the current testing regime is that these tests are not – or should not be – about judging the individual child. They exist to make schools accountable for the children in their charge, ensuring they are making good progress and are ready for the next stage of their education. A good school should be able to divert the stress and pressure from the child. In some schools, children have no idea they are sitting the tests and therefore feel no pressure – and very recent press has indicated some children have welcomed the tests. However, as schools and teachers are pushed to meet ever-changing floor targets and progress measures, it is understandable that some of that stress is transferred to the children.

At Headington, we are fortunately exempt from much of this. We recently removed the requirement for our own Prep pupils to sit entrance exams to join the Senior School because we trust their teachers’ judgements as to whether they are suitable. While we do assess prospective pupils before offering them places, we do not expect them to spend the little free time they may have swotting up for exams. There is a huge market in tutoring, not only for entrance exams for grammar and independent schools but also to supplement pupils’ studies. If they have to be coached to within an inch of their life to get in to a school, it is unlikely they will manage its day-to-day challenges. We prefer to see the girls as they are, trying their hardest rather than regurgitating memorised material.

When it comes to external examinations the picture is a little different. These exams and results do matter. At GCSE, it will shape their Sixth Form options. For IB and A Level it may decide whether or not they get into the university or workplace of their choice.

I would argue that a little pressure for teenagers can be a good thing – and there is a difference between pressure and stress. When I speak to fellow headteachers who teach boys, they say they generally find they do have to apply pressure to ensure that their students put in the effort and strive to do their best. Teaching girls, we often find the biggest pressure is that which the girls put on themselves and our role is to help them put it into perspective.

It can be tempting to spend all day and all night cramming but this can be counterproductive. It can also be tempting to agonise over every single question – before, during and afterwards. If you have learnt the material well in the first place, there should be nothing to fear. It is important to prepare well but it is equally important to look after yourself – rest well, eat well, take regular breaks, think positively and don’t attempt to be superwoman. All that remains is for me to wish all our girls the very best of luck.


Caroline Jordan, Headmistress & GSA President 2016, Headington School

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