I always think of the first half of the summer term as the ‘business end’ of the academic year. In my mind it sits in contrast with the frenetic second half of any summer term, replete with special events and school trips.
Pupils in 6 out of 7 Senior School year groups have sat exams this half term. And for pupils in Year 11 and the Upper Sixth, there is still some way to go. In fact some of our A Level pupils are only just getting started. Our internal exams for Years 8, 9 and the Lower Sixth are over, and Year 10 will be done soon.
As our pupils focus on their exams each year, a sense of calm purpose descends on the school. Exams are an innately challenging experience – intellectually, physically and emotionally. They demand reserves of emotional as well as academic strength. This is especially true for some of our GCSE students who sat as many as eight public exams in a single week this month. Stamina was the order of the day.
People like to portray academic girls’ schools as full of anxious high achievers with a tendency towards ‘drama’. I find this trope to be frustrating and even sexist. The days when people like Hippocrates thought women were innately hysterical creatures, because their wombs wandered around their bodies causing emotional havoc, are long gone. But a residual belief that girls in particular are ‘drama queens’, perfectionists, ‘stressy’ etc. remains…
People occasionally wonder whether co-educational environments would be better at spreading some mythical sense of calm. Boys are more ‘chillaxed’ after all aren’t they? Perhaps they would have a good influence? In my view it’s only a few steps from these sorts of comments to the comments of one former Prime Minister telling a female parliamentarian to ‘Calm down, dear’.
What people don’t see is the scores of girls at South Hampstead just calmly cracking on with things and doing their best to keep things in perspective. Of course, for some girls, exam stress is particularly challenging and schools and parents do their very best to help them through. It’s very challenging for some boys too, I suspect. Of course, even the most sanguine person can have a ‘meltdown’. And some of us are more naturally excitable than others. That includes all of us – as adults, as professionals and as parents. In 21 years of teaching, I have met all sorts of parents – from the incredibly relaxed to the quick to worry.
There is a second trope I would like to tackle: that worry and anxiety are always bad things. As adults we sometimes forget that worry is a natural human emotion, indeed a necessary one. We do our utmost to shield our children from worry. We worry when they are worried. This is only natural, but should our response be to remove the cause of the worry, or to help our child manage the feelings – and perhaps even use them to good effect? It depends on context and the degree of worry. Persistent and unmanageable anxiety may well need professional support – not to remove the anxiety altogether, but to help us keep it within manageable levels and control our response to it.
Worry can be a good thing. Would we entrust our child’s education to a school that never worried? We would not. There are a lot of things schools need to worry about quite intensively – safeguarding, health and safety, recruitment of staff, calendars and timetables. I wouldn’t send any child on a trip where the trip leader had not done quite a bit of worrying beforehand. Equally, I wouldn’t send a candidate into an exam without a modicum of worry about revision.
We should appreciate the worriers in our midst more. They are the people who in a professional setting do all the pre-mortems, write all the risk assessments and do the heavy lifting of logistical planning. Their cautiousness tempers the inspiring visionaries amongst us. It is all very well to have great visions, strategic plans but without a small army of worriers, they won’t get very far. Productive worry makes us focus on the details that will ultimately deliver.
I think one of the most important things all of us can do is to be less afraid of worry. We must identify unmanageable worry and young people who genuinely need professional intervention and ongoing support. That is an essential duty of parents, schools and medical professionals. But if we label and diagnose ANY sort of worry too quickly, are we really giving our young people the empowerment they need to manage their own emotions?
Earlier this term I spoke to pupils about the importance of emotional regulation. Year 10 mischievously told me that this one assembly transformed their attitude to exam stress. I don’t believe that for one minute, but if we keep on plugging away at some of these messages, I hope they may one day sink in. One of my key messages to pupils was about how they could help each other. The advice was pretty simple:
- Don’t boast about how much revision you have done (especially if the revision lists have not yet even been released).
- Don’t ask other people how much revision they have done. It’s none of your business.
- Avoid making comedic, over-dramatic statements about how you will ‘fail’ (fail meaning anything less than 90% in this context). There’s probably someone next to you who will be very satisfied with 70%.
- Read the room. If you are a talker and need to vent about your stress, find someone who enjoys this too. Don’t force it on those who would rather be in their own quiet space or talk about something else.
I can’t pretend that every pupil took all this advice to heart. Public Health messages from the Headmistress tend to have limited effects, I suspect. But what I can tell you is that, during random walks around the school, what struck me most was the good spirits of your daughters, including those right in the eye of the storm. They are such a delight to talk to and you should be proud of the resilience they demonstrate in so many little ways.
We are a school not of ‘wandering wombs’ but of wonderful young women whose humour, camaraderie, self-awareness, and sense of perspective never cease to delight me. As Dr Collisson says to you at the end of concerts: ‘Thank you for producing them.’