In marathon races, mile 20 is known as “the wall”, the point when the energy in your muscles runs out and continuing on requires overcoming every psychological instinct to stop.
For schools, March is “the wall”. It’s the month when teachers’ good intentions for their class are in tatters and when, if things are going badly, it’s difficult to turn them around in the limited amount of time left. The first instinct is to give in, the second is to look for another job. The third, and most important, is to knuckle down.
Unfortunately, knuckling down is often ungratifying. “Maybe if I get the kids in every Tuesday after school, and use online quizzes, and send stern letters to parents, then we might make it,” thinks the wall-fatigued teacher, only to find that like a marathon runner who tries to replenish by scoffing a bag of crisps at mile 20, things simply do not work that way.
Feeling the stress, teachers become snippier in March. Pupils wanting yet another lengthy chat about their unfathomable Minecraft projects are shooed away as Ms Panicked desperately tries to write a revision booklet, and Mr Worried replaces after-school football with punctuation club.
As senses are heightened, we can all succumb to the idea that children are also feeling exam stress more acutely. Indeed, parents will tell you that anxiety amps up from March.
Never deterred from his academic mission, Nick Gibb has helpfully suggested that, to tackle March madness, schools should just test children even more often throughout the year to get them used to the stress.
Unfortunately, knuckling down is often ungratifying
For a long time, I was cautiously with Gibb on this. If children put on plays and concerts, run races and play football matches – all of which are very stressful – then why worry about exams? Give them lots of practice and all will be well.
But I was stopped in my tracks by a recent discussion with the co-founders of the MeeTwo app: Dr Kerstyn Comley and Suzi Godson.
MeeTwo is a completely free app which allows young people to write their worries and get moderated responses from their peers. It’s clever because it avoids the immediate medicalising of issues and recognises that young people sometimes just need an outlet for concerns. It also connects young people in a safe space rather than in unmoderated online forums, which can be dangerous.
One thing they noticed since starting the app is that young people often have stressed responses to internal school tests which might seem fairly meaningless to adults.
At the start of September one wrote: “I have a science test tomorrow and I am really nervous! It’s my fourth day of year 10 and we already have a test! I am really worried I am going to fail and everyone is going to be mean to me.”
It’s easy to sneer or shrug. Is it a mental health problem that a kid is worried everyone is going to be mean to them? Probably not. But it does remind us that children care deeply about their friends. Even if teachers never read out results, children share them after class. Admitting you did badly can be wounding if friends respond negatively. Then there’s the trauma of your parents or siblings finding out the score – disappointing or delighting them depending on the results (often inversely).
Tests simply are stressful for lots of children. March is not their wall, however, when every test, however small, can feel that way.
Don’t leap to conclusions here; I’m not a born-again exam-nihilist.
Setting a test at the start of the year is critical for a teacher to gauge ability levels. Testing aids long-term memory. And never testing pupils until they are 16 seems bizarre: surprising children with a D grade at 16 isn’t going to help their self-esteem either.
However, schools might at least recognise how testing plays out for some children and come up with solutions. Encouraging the use of apps like MeeTwo is one example, as is an internal peer-to-peer support programme. Given the much higher awareness young people have of mental health, encouraging them to help each other is a great way to empower them rather than merely paint young people as exam victims.
As March hits staff, I wonder whether teachers need their own version of MeeTwo. The Education Support Partnership already does great work – offering a free phoneline of trained counsellors (08000 562 561) and text support (07909 341229) that teachers can access all day every day, as well as other resources on its site.
Ultimately, the most important thing is that we all get over the academic year line safely and with our minds still intact.
The wall is real, but it’s also surmountable. Keep going folks – and take care as you do.