“Pupils are welcoming and friendly and many are proud of their academy. ” Ofsted 2016
Today we were reviewing this week’s outgoing correspondence to parents and I was about to sign the letters for the remaining Prom arrangements. Thank goodness I paused long enough with my pen to realise this would be the last scheduled letter from USH. ‘It needs a re-write’ I said to my PA. ‘The last words I say to our parents after five years of hard-work and dedication cannot be...chicken Kiev'.
Communication needs care.
I’m aware of how I'm communicating when talking to students, staff and parents about exams and I spend a lot of time thinking of how we can work through the uncertainties they feel. This year invovles added pressure because of so much uncertainty surrounding the reformed exams for the foundation subjects. English and Maths felt this last year but it’s now on a whole new level. The nature of secondary schools means that spring and summer is associated with uncertainty; and this year that’s been amplified. Exams are important but so too is wellbeing . What good do results do for students if they leave school resenting their teachers and feeling burned-out? That's not a desirable life-lesson. So we have to find the balance.
Last weekend, I read an article which warned we should make sure 'we don’t (accidentally) treat teenagers like underperforming employees.' To safeguard this, every interaction with Year 11 is an opportunity to ‘calm the waters’ and show everyone they can do it. Because they can.
The reality is, uncertainty amplifies anxiety. But pretending to know everything isn’t productive either. With the reduction in coursework and new grade boundaries unknown, teenagers are approaching these exams with very little that is secured. In Johann Hari's brilliant new book Lost Connections (Bloomsbury), he asserts that a significant cause of anxiety is a disconnection from a 'hopeful or secure future'. That sounds a familiar mindset for GCSE students. A Year 11 said to me today 'but what if I get a exam marker who doesn't understand my point of view?' A valid question from an intelligent student.
USH is not a school which piles the pressure onto parents either. That's not our style. Parents do a brilliant job of ensuring good routines are established and applied with love. Parents don’t need schools shaming them into feeling guilty if things aren’t going to plan. That's a primitive strategy which damages relationships and affects memories.
I take heart from a conversation with a parent on Thursday who said our preparation for the exams last year was ‘flawless’. That’s great to hear because we try to get it right as often as we can. My sincere hope is that every student has at least one ‘go-to’ adult if things are piling up and the senior staff are checking-in with as many as possible to make sure things aren't getting too much. Isolation can creep in on young people and community is the best antidote. We have to find the hope and security for our students so they can worry less and (try to) enjoy what's left of their learning. The sense of spirit and focus at USH this time of year is essential to what makes our school special.
Best wishes for the exam season everyone. Year 11, you are rewarding company and we will miss you. Let's enjoy our last weeks together. With or without chicken Kiev.