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Keeping Calm & Carrying On: The Importance of Wellbeing for Exams

With exam season looming, we thought that it would be worth exploring some strategies for supporting pupil wellbeing during this potentially stressful and demanding time.  

Exams. Just the word can send shivers down the spine of students and teachers alike.  The pressure to perform can be immense, often leading to stress, anxiety, and even burnout. But what if there was a way to navigate exam season with a calmer mind and a healthier approach? In this interview, we chat with Andy Mellor, the National Wellbeing Director for Schools Advisory Service and the Strategic Lead for the Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools, to explore the importance of prioritising well-being in schools during exam season and discover strategies to help students not just survive, but thrive under pressure. 

Can you shed some light on your current work?  

My work now is with SAS’s 4500 schools across the UK and beyond, looking at how we build and sustain whole school wellbeing cultures whilst also supporting those who work and learn in our schools, with strategies to improve their own wellbeing. One of the biggest challenges at the moment is supporting all those schools who want and need supervision for their staff so that some of the really challenging parts of the job, which can affect us mentally, can be offloaded and strategies sought to move these challenges forward. 

There are two other big pieces of work that occupy my time currently. 

The first is ensuring that the whole school shares a common understanding and definition of what wellbeing is.  Every person in the school will define it differently as wellbeing is personal and unique to us. At its best, we should be able to thrive and be fulfilled by the job we do in school but so much of this is tied up in the funding challenges that schools face with some staff picking up workload from departed staff who have left the school as a result of a re-structure due to funding cuts. 

The other really important piece of work for me is in working with governors. So much of the strategic leadership of the trust or school takes place at a CEO/Head level but who is looking after the CEO’s and Heads?  They make it their business to put everyone else ahead of their own wellbeing and yet, counterintuitively, to be the best version of ourselves as CEO’s/Heads we need to be putting our wellbeing first. 

I wonder if you’re a governor reading this, whether you know how the CEO/ Head is doing and to what extent those overall school/ trust leaders are having a detailed conversation about their wellbeing with governors or trust board members. We have data at SAS which shows that when the overall organisation leader is absent, be that a head or CEO, then it adversely affects absence in the rest of the school by up to 40%. Getting wellbeing right, as a governor or trust board member, for your overall leader is crucial from not just a whole school perspective but also from a human perspective. 

How can schools create a supportive environment to address these challenges and promote overall wellbeing during exam season? 

We are currently entering that point of the year which elicits probably the greatest stress response in the whole year. Y6 SATs are just over a week away, GCSE’s and A levels are not much further behind and over the previous year and years, the learning process has led to this point. I remember exams being stressful, but when I was at school there were no league tables and no high stakes accountability. How schools are judged and then paraded publicly as being a good school or otherwise is linked directly to student outcomes in these tests and exams. 

No wonder then, that staff in schools have been preparing rigorously for the exams and with the increase in pressure from inspection and league tables, no wonder that the pressure on staff in schools is finding its way to students. We know that if a teacher is having a tough day for whatever reason, their stress and anxiety is picked up on by students and affects their behaviour. Any wonder therefore that we currently have the highest levels of mental ill health in teenagers that we’ve ever known. 

However. when it comes to exams and exam stress, schools and staff find themselves in a position which leads to personal conflict. They know that the exam system is likely to create greater mental ill health for their students and try desperately to mitigate this, but they also know that the intervention from DfE and Ofsted, should their students not achieve what they had hoped, will lead to even greater pressure which they also want to protect themselves, students and the school from. 

It is to be hoped that as we move forward, that the new HMCI and perhaps a more understanding Secretary of State might meet with school leaders to help find a way out of this situation which serves no-one, apart from those who want unreliably raw data to provide crude measures of school performance which often bear little resemblance to the full quality of the work going on in schools. 

Failure to address this or worse, to continue to feed what has become a data monster, which feeds crude assumptions about schools, will lead to spiralling numbers of our young people with mental ill health and will drive more teachers away from a profession that many already struggle to recognise as teaching. 

Imagine for a minute though, that we do achieve a less invasive inspection and accountability, we can look forward to higher standards and teachers and students become the best version of themselves. Spending on mental ill health would fall and we would stem the number of teachers leaving the profession to a certain extent. 

It has to be our aim to set a goal for accountability without the toxicity, where teachers and learners can thrive and be the best version of themselves, making teaching and learning better. As it stands the end product of formal assessment now confines and constrains much of what goes before. The answers are out there and many of them reside with those in our schools who experience this toxicity first hand. 

How can teachers create a positive and supportive classroom environment that reduces anxiety and encourages student well-being during exams? 

For now I would encourage schools to consider taking the stress out of exam season as much as they can. We know that a little stress is good for optimal performance but ongoing stress leads to burnout which is not where we want our staff and students to be. 

I’d encourage schools, in the long term, to create a system and culture which supports students to come and speak with staff if they are feeling overwhelmed. Perhaps for the week before exams and the exam period itself, have a couple of rooms designated as drop in rooms so that students can come and speak to staff or student wellbeing ambassadors about how they are feeling. This will help them to discuss their own concerns but also give staff a heads up on who might be struggling so that support can be offered.  

At the end of the exam process, ask students what could have been done better to lower stress levels and support their wellbeing. The students themselves often have some great ideas which you can use next year and which may come to them once they have been through the exams. 

Ideally we want students entering the exam with a clear head, feeling confident that they’ve done all they could to prepare. However, we also need to get students to put the exam back in its contextual box. Giving students a sense that this is a stepping stone and that “the sun will still come up tomorrow” if they don’t do well, is liberating and may allow students to better express themselves in the exam without the fear that often accompanies exams. 

I also sometimes wonder whether an over formal approach to the conduct of exams is intimidating for students. We can do what we need to do, to ensure the exam board know we have discharged our responsibilities, but it shouldn’t intimidate students. 

We invited students to bring in a cuddly toy or a picture which helped them to relax during the exam. Seeing a familiar item or face often helps to lower stress levels. We also tried to get students out in the open air for a 5 minute walk and breather prior to sitting exams which helps to oxygenate the brain and make students feel a little more relaxed. 

I would also pay close attention to the students’ behaviour on the run up to exam season and watch for changes in behaviour. Are some students untypically quiet or untypically exhibiting poor behaviour? We know that changes in usual behaviour patterns are sign that something isn’t right. Sometimes a little empathy and recognition that this is a tough time but that we’re here with you on this, and you’re not alone, is enough. 

Ultimately, we need to see change in the way the exam system works. If we were judged on our ability to do a job we were employed to do, simply on an afternoon or a morning’s work we’d rightly be concerned. However, that is exactly what happens with our young people taking exams. It’s a system relatively unchanged since its inception and yet the world has changed hugely. 

In conclusion I have three take aways: 

* Build a long-term inclusive culture in school which values and supports student voice, so that students feel able to verbalise their vulnerabilities especially around exams. 

* Take every possible opportunity to lower stress levels during the exam period whilst maintaining a level of focus on achievement as opposed to attainment. 

* Work with parents to lower stress levels emanating from home. Support for the student from home in encouraging the young person to do their best is critical to freeing the young person from stress in the exam itself. 

About our interviewee…  

My name is Andy Mellor and I hesitate to call myself a retired headteacher as I’m not retired but stopped being a headteacher over 4 years ago now. Having had a year as National President of NAHT just before leaving headship, I took up the opportunity of becoming the National Wellbeing Director for Schools Advisory Service (SAS) and the Strategic Lead for the Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools on a 4 days and 1 day basis respectively. 

If I’m honest I’m not sure how long I could have gone on for. I was 56 and my family were telling me that I needed to stop being a head as they could see the damage it was doing to my health, both physically and mentally. I’d been a head for 17 years and the school was in a good place. The NQT I’d inherited when I became head in 2003 was ready for headship and succeeded me and one the first two NQT’s I’d appointed was ready for the deputy headship and got it. 

For me, developing a succession plan which leaves the school in a better place than when you found it, is the only measure that really matters, as it suggests that the school is doing well and is in a good place to go on. That is the way it has turned out as well, with the school retaining its outstanding grading recently. 

However going back to me leaving headship, I’d got to a place where I’d done everything I wanted to and the offer of working for SAS was too good an opportunity to turn down. It gave me the opportunity to address all the things that had affected my wellbeing as a head and provide heads, SLT and schools with support for what I believe underpins all good schools. People being supported to be the best version of themselves and looking after their wellbeing, means that staff and students have the best chance of maximising their potential to teach and learn. 

I talk to schools about imposter syndrome and I struggled with this as a teacher and senior leader, but one of the things I say to those struggling with Imposter Syndrome is “believe in those who have appointed you and trust the process.” John Brady from SAS saw something in me, which I hadn’t seen in myself, which he believed would equip me to be his National Wellbeing Director. 

Looking back much of the work we’d done in school was about equipping staff and students to be autonomous, masters of their crafts and develop a real sense of purpose in why they are where they are, doing what they are doing. All of this speaks to improving wellbeing, so when I started working for SAS, this was, and still is, a big part of the work I do. People feeling that they have a say in their day to day, masters of their craft feeling fulfilled and with a sense of where they are going, drives positive wellbeing and we saw that improve standards, relationships and Ofsted grading, going from RI to outstanding in just over two years. 


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