Category Archives: Exam Stress

Results Day Failure


37 years ago today, or thereabouts I received my results for O levels and CSEs. I collected my envelopes and went away on my own, knowing that I wouldn’t have done very well. One of the worst things about failing is being around success, good to escape it. I looked at my results, I’d achieved an O level equivalent in Maths CSE, though not achieved it in O level… I passed O levels in Physics, Geography and English Lit and failed all the others… I had 4 O levels to my name.


I retook English Language and History the following Autumn getting an A and a B respectively and I also reinforced my D in Art.

6 O levels to my name, in two sittings. No smiling pics of me clutching certificates…

By December I had left secondary school ‘by mutual consent’ and the chip on my shoulder has accompanied me ever since.

It wasn’t exams I failed, it was school. I didn’t apply myself and the school did little to truly educate me. The school worked for some, failed others, and for many in our cohort in 1979 there were worse stories than mine, that there were also better ones points at my responsibility to see myself through. Nowadays people call this needing grit, then I was simply lazy.

Looking back I can see what the school could have done for me that would have enabled me a fair shot at passing more than I did. For myself, I could have worked, I didn’t… I was extremely cynical about my school, the schooling and the whole point. Loud, argumentative, I was probably ‘difficult to teach’, and it is this that would prove in the years to come an asset when in a round about way I found myself back in the classroom as a teacher, vowing to be the teacher I needed when I was at school.

Those who celebrate failure as a precursor to success, seem to do it with alarming self-assuredness. Whether it be Jeremy Clarkson boasting about how he didn’t need his exams to become a rich celebrity or a teacher on twitter encouraging growth mindset, it seems as if failure is a virtue; it isn’t.

For all the pictures of successful students jumping into the air with big smiles on their faces, there are many more skulking away in the background, it might be because they were taught badly, have behavioural issues, are lazy, are not academic, whatever the reason, it still hurts.

“So what,” I’d say, “I don’t care…” and I got more and more bitter…

Exam results do matter but a good education matters more. No-one dragged me through exams, which I am thankful for, but on the way no-one really spotted I could be taught well either. What to do with the kids who won’t learn unless you teach them well?

Great teaching requires a teacher to instil discipline, focus, ensure great content, a curriculum that connects, the use of argument and challenging ideas, teachers should teach pupils how to write, speak and debate, and yes, they need to be passionate about what they are teaching too…

Ultimately  the responsibility for good results should lie with the child and not the school. Teachers should make sure their pupils know this and provide them with the knowledge and the tools by which children can ensure they do their best. If a child is dragged through tests and exams they will have no idea what real failure looks like until it hits them hard when they least expect it. If a child is let down by a school they will always have someone else to blame.

At least I expected to fail.

I still do; this is no bad thing, but it doesn’t ever feel like one step nearer to success. It won’t if I can still blame the school rather than thinking about my own responsibility towards my failure.

Maybe Scream! Anxiety and the Young…


Natasha Devon, the Government’s ex Mental Health ‘Tsar’ said recently that: “Time and time again over recent years young people – and the people who teach them – have spoken out about how a rigorous culture of testing and academic pressure is detrimental to their mental health… Anxiety is the fastest growing illness in under 21s. These things are not a coincidence.”

These things are not a coincidence…

Maybe they are a coincidence; maybe they’re not. What they are, of course, is a convenient narrative, and perhaps testing and academic pressure is part of the problem but other things could be too.

In this piece Annie Murphy-Paul points to research that our ‘Smart-phones’ might be making us miserable, she concludes:

“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind… While it’s true that our minds seem naturally inclined to wander, our technological devices make the problem considerably worse. You’ll be happier if you focus on what you’re doing right here, right now—and that means putting your phone away whenever possible.”

That smart-phone usage has increased over the past twenty years (from 0%) and especially for younger people I could say:  “Anxiety is the fastest growing illness in under 21s: these things are not a coincidence.” In fact, it says ‘technological devices’ – maybe all computers, tablets, games etc??!!!? “Anxiety is the fastest growing illness in under 21s: these things are not a coincidence.”

Other things might add to anxiety, group work and behaviour add to teenage resentment according to an article in Education Week, maybe this sort of practice has increased over the past few years? “Anxiety is the fastest growing illness in under 21s: these things are not a coincidence.”

Maybe anxiety is increasing because of identity politics and the “intense debate about trigger warnings, a term that is 20 years old“?

Maybe the whole twenty-first century skills dogma is causing anxiety? Telling children they have to prepare for jobs that don’t yet exist is not exactly comforting… In a competitive world, where we are told that robots will take even middle class jobs! And they will have to compete with people who will work harder, for less, and that the halcyon days of workers’ rights might be over as bosses look to exploit their workforce

In the future, we are told, our children will have to study on and on to accrue qualifications and work until they are eighty years old and will never be able to afford a house in which to live so will be forever renting and sharing… That our kids are informed that they won’t be able to have a loving relationship that lasts a lifetime, that sugar is killing them, that antibiotics are failing to work, that airplanes will fall from the sky and people will kill them in concerts, on holiday, at football matches… 24/7 media tells them incessantly,  with more lurid headlines that vie for attention on paper and online…

Or maybe Cultural relativism stresses children out: ‘Hey, there is no truth, your opinion is equally valid to mine…’ Maybe when they have all the information in the world (mediated by large West-Coast global conglomerates) at their finger tips, ask a question and get millions of replies then that is stressful…

Maybe when many of the replies they get are sponsored but, hey, an advert is equally valid to a critical text written by an undercover journalist with a left wing axe to grind…

And, how many adverts do they see, do ‘we’ see, every day? Buy this, believe in this, you too can look like this… And ads pop up, pop up, pop up, stop you reading the clickbait, clickbait, clickbait and pop up, pop up, pop up…

And social media where all your friends are doing better than you, looking better than you, having more fun than you, exist in sunnier days than you…

And classrooms where all the ‘short term attention spans’ are catered for, speed up, be fast, lots of busy activities, they can’t concentrate for long so don’t help them learn to…

And parents who, terrified that every adult left alone with their child is a paedophile, so insist on accompanying their children every step of the way, whilst informing them… “When I was your age I was out in the fields all day, playing on my own or with mates and I was never touched up by a TV personality, priest or politician, though I was offered sweets once by a retired Scout Master…”

And parents whose work/life balance is so askew that they are constantly on call to work, knowing a slip up or two might mean the sack, must reply to this email, oh and this one, and this text, sorry love can’t play today…

AND that BREXIT is a ‘high-risk bet for our children

“Anxiety is the fastest growing illness in under 21s: these things are not a coincidence.”

Maybe we all need to slow down, take a deep breath, and think – if it’s true that anxiety is on the increase in the young, maybe some things are a coincidence and somethings may not be, however there are things over which we have power to do something about in our classrooms and in our homes today, but will we? Or do we want the narrative to affirm our already held beliefs and prejudices, after all, ‘there is no truth’…

What should we do? What can we do? What will we do?


Don’t Panic About Tests


‘In some ways I don’t feel like a teacher at all anymore. I prepare children for tests. They’ve not enjoyed it, I’ve not enjoyed it, but we’ve done it : and one thing my children know how to do is answer test questions’  Zoë Brown

Zoe and her fiancé Tim Paramour have both made a big thing of quitting teaching – with articles focussing on their reasons published in ‘The Independent’. Paramour wrote that:

2012 was the turning point. Ofsted’s obsession with results and the threat of no-notice inspections for schools whose test scores dipped engendered a culture of fear. Terrified by the threat of losing their jobs in an academy takeover, headteachers made more absurd demands of their teachers’ spare time.

This is telling, Headteachers are making absurd demands because of the perceived threat. Now I’m not denying that the threat exists but I do wonder if making absurd demands is the right way to deal with it? I have long argued that the accountability regime has lead to a distortion of what constitutes a good education, but by blaming this regime for every bad choice made in a school just adds to the problem rather than highlights it.

In my book, Trivium 21c, the former education minister, Elizabeth Truss, argued that: ‘At the moment exams have two purposes: one is assessing students and one is assessing the school. I think those two purposes need to be separated.’ She was right and if when we test children it is not mainly about assessing them but mainly about assessing the school the situation is exacerbated.

Paramour went on to say:

Got a passion for music? Primary teaching is not for you. Want to inspire children with drama? Go hug a tree. Think children should learn about their local area? Officially that’s fine (it’s on the meaningless, untested part of the curriculum) 

He seems to imply what is not tested is ‘meaningless’ Now this might be dark humour at play but does formal testing excuse a narrowing of the curriculum? Paramour suggests that Ed Balls was an ‘impressive’ Secretary of State and that the Rose review of the primary curriculum was a good thing as it suggested that:

…traditional subject divides be replaced with broader areas of learning and stressed the importance of play, particularly for younger pupils. It promoted the development of good speaking and listening skills and the value of nurturing character traits in young people such as resilience and independence, as well as the clear focus on maths and English that already existed.

It seems to me, from this statement only and not the whole review, that the Rose review could have resulted in a narrowing of the curriculum – drama, in particular, fares badly if subject divides are removed, it becomes lost as it metamorphoses into being a pedagogical tool to study issues and tick ‘speaking and listening’ boxes through role-play. One of the best ways to protect the Arts in education is to have ‘traditional subject divides’.

Brown states in her piece, drawn from this blog, that she has focused on the answering of test questions. I wonder how much this has been done and whether in reaction to the over-bearing accountability measures teachers are focusing too much on the absurd demands driven by their SLT which, in turn, might be an over reaction to the absurd accountability measures? That the reaction is understandable is one thing but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be questioned, how a school reacts to measures can exacerbate the situation.

Take stress, a teacher needn’t pass undue exam stress onto her pupils, and a Headteacher needn’t pass undue stress onto her teachers. People work less well under a lot of stress; by passing it down the chain, each link ceases to function so well. Therefore if a school wants to perform well, they should do a lot to take the pressure off. This is not done by telling children they needn’t be stressed by tests etc. by offering last minute letters signalling ‘DON’T BE STRESSED’, which is the equivalent of Corporal Jones shouting ‘DON’T PANIC‘ it is done by letting the tests come and go with as little rancour as possible. How the tests have been introduced by the DfE and the content of the said tests is open to question but increasing panic throughout the system doesn’t help. How to not panic so much? Well, maybe more testing, low stakes, as part of regular teaching and learning could help.

This excellent piece by Tim Oates points out that our children are not over tested. He writes:

The sense of ‘most assessed’ derives not from the amount of formal testing, but its ‘high stakes’ nature…

adding that pupils:

often fail to distinguish between a formal, required national test, and a timed, ‘quiet’ test devised by the school. To them, it’s all testing

Oates points out that:

Finland, that country which is seen as relaxed, high performing and respectful of teachers, has many more timed, ‘quiet’ tests in primary schooling than we do. Frequently these come from well-designed learning materials and, interestingly, from teachers’ associations. The Finnish State has a history of testing too: tests from the centre, not to all children but to a sample, for the state to make judgements about the quality of schooling in the country. Overall, a high density of formal tests… in Finland – where testing also is far more frequent than in typical primary schools in England – pupils aren’t stressed by the high levels of testing.

Maybe this could offer us a way forward?

The absurd demands that are, it is said, being made by school management can be alleviated through thoughtful curriculum design, for example a ‘joined up curriculum‘ would help enormously. Traditional subject boundaries, especially at ks2 and 3, help protect a broad curriculum offer and, especially, the Arts. We should test more often, we should design better tests and teachers should be at the forefront of the design of these tests. For accountability purposes the state could run sample tests to ascertain overall quality of schooling and, indeed, schools. In the meantime, let’s ditch the absurd ‘don’t panic’ approach that may be adding to the stress our youngsters feel.