Parents don’t overstress about exams

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I am seriously not enjoying myself. I’ve had sleepless nights for at least two months and feel stressed. I’m finding the experience of having my children sitting exams far worse than doing them myself.  

I’m truly not a hovering, helicopter parent and have always encouraged my kids to be independent, take responsibility for their learning and make their own mistakes. However, it is so hard just to stand back.  

I asked one of my children when could I expect to see some sense of urgency. Surely a bit of an adrenalin rush is good to focus the mind. The response was: “You should be so grateful I’m chilled and not suffering from anxiety or mental health issues.” A valid point I can’t argue with.

The irony is over the last few months I have delivered many talks to parents in corporates on how to support children through exams, revision technique, managing stress. However now that my kids have reached this stage, I’m asking myself how much does traditional education really matter?

I’m not telling them but we all know that grades are only really relevant in the short term. They don’t define you. They are a stepping-stone to get into university and help secure your first job, but after that no one really cares.  When was the last time someone asked you your grades? Do your own parents even remember them?

I have met many academic, straight-A* graduates who still struggle to find a job or work out what they want to do with their life. Real “success” in life is so much more than good grades in school. If the world has moved on so rapidly since we were children and technology is so advanced, why is it that the school system hasn’t evolved? A-levels might require some higher-order thinking, forming opinions and analysis but GCSEs are essentially an exercise in memory retention.  

What’s the point of the new revised GCSES that make kids learn maths formulas off by heart? Why not just give them the formula in the exam? Surely the maths part is about testing whether they can apply it?  

Some time ago IBM conducted the largest study of over 1,500 corporate heads across sixty nations and found that creativity is the most important leadership quality for success in business. Yet all this focus on testing feels like the education system is crushing creativity and any encouragement to think outside the box.

I recently went to a parents’ evening for one of my younger children and she received glowing reports about her positive energy, leadership and communication skills, being proactive, conscientious, creative and sociable. One teacher remarked her qualities are something money can’t buy and no one can teach. 

That gave me so much more joy than if they’d reported she was in top sets for every subject. I know these are the characteristics that will enable her to do anything she sets hers her mind to. I genuinely believe solid EQ (level of emotional intelligence) will determine the quality of a person’s life in a much more fundamental way than IQ.

Parenting has become a bit of a competitive sport and I wish I could step out of this pressure cooker and not care so much. It’s crazy that even students in top private schools are having loads of tutoring — a security blanket to guarantee outstanding grades. Yet are they independent learners or heavily reliant on being spoon fed? What happens when they get to university and then have to study on their own?  

Far more important than the content children learn at school are the non-cognitive skills that significantly contribute to their performance.  Things like grit, self-belief, resilience, growth mindset (the belief it’s always possible to develop) and work ethic. These life skills are the most beneficial thing about exams: developing discipline, learning how to plan, prioritise and cope with stress and pressure, the attributes they need to succeed in life.

The best books I have read on exams were published onlyfairly recently: The A level Mindset and The GCSE Mindset by Steve Oakes and Martin Griffin. With decades of experience teaching years 10-13, they have tried to analyse what successful students do.

They have nailed it down to what they call VESPA:

Vision — setting clear goals and targets;

Effort;

Systems — organising their learning and time;

Practice —the way students learn;

and Attitude — being confident, emotionally in control, responding positively to feedback and adopting a growth mindset.

Studying is as much about mastering and understanding yourself as it is about mastering the subject. That’s the true benefit of watching our kids go through this torturous period.

I simply can’t wait until the end of next week. I think I’m more excited about it all being over than my kids are. Maybe then I can go back to sleeping peacefully right through the night.  

Rachel Vecht is director of the educational consultancy Educating Matters,www.educating matters.co.uk  

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