How do you keep students motivated, with exams and summer rites of passage cancelled?

“Normally, I’d be trying to calm kids down going into the exam hall.”

For John, a music teacher and head of Year 11 at a small school in the Midlands, summer term would usually be an exhausting adrenaline rush of GCSEs, A-levels, end of year tests, music grade exams, school concerts, sports days, end-of-year assemblies, and, of course, the blur of chiffon and spray tan that is the much-anticipated Year 11 prom.

“Normally, I’d be trying to calm kids down going into the exam hall,” says John.

But there’s nothing normal about this term. The nationwide lockdown that has been enforced to try and curb the spread of coronavirus means schools are closed for the majority of pupils, and exams cancelled.

With no exams or SATs, how do we instil a sense of purpose?

Many teenagers are at the mercy of predicted grades from mock exams they took in January, so now, explains John, “most of summer term for me is going to be trying to calm kids down about what grades they’re going to get. It’s much more difficult when you can’t speak to them in person.”

This is a difficult time for teachers and pupils alike. How can teachers instil a sense of purpose and motivation in their pupils without exams to punctuate the term? We spoke to teachers and parents about the challenges of a locked down summer term and how they’re dealing with them.

The absence of formal exams, for many pupils, can call into question the point of continuing with education in the summer term. At John’s school, pupils are expected to adhere to the usual timetabled lessons from home. After the half term break, Year 11 pupils will start studying for their A-levels.

“It’s more problematic for pupils that are not staying on for sixth form; they might be going to schools where they don’t even do A-levels, but it’s all we can do.” There is even talk of younger year groups sitting internal school exams at home.

Year 6 especially affected

Year 6 pupils also find themselves at the precipice of a similar educational void with the cancellation of SATs. If schools don’t reopen until the autumn, these children will have spent nearly six months away from the classroom before navigating the step up to starting secondary school. Studies have demonstrated that during the summer holidays, primary school children experience a loss of spelling ability, which can take seven weeks of teaching the following year to counteract. So what can be done to support this cohort of pupils?

"No home learning pack can replace a teacher"

Nicola, a primary school teacher in North London, has tried to make the transition to home learning as smooth as possible for her pupils.

“No home learning pack can replace a teacher,” says Nicola, “and parents face a real challenge, as they’re balancing other logistics and concerns around work and health.”

Nicola has focused on what is manageable, sending home a suggested weekly timetable, stressing that it is simply to help them structure their days. Some of her pupils raised concerns about having to help look after younger brothers and sisters while their parents juggled work commitments.

While John’s Year 11 pupils are older and can work independently, they have expressed similar concerns. One family has six children at different schools and, John says, “the younger siblings are having to work during the day, and the older kids are working in the evening. One of my Year 11s sent me work at midnight on a Friday night because that was when she could access the laptop.”

Flexibility is clearly key at this time. Nicola and her parallel teacher worked solidly before the school closed to collate work that could be done independently: “I sent home blank exercise books and pencil cases for those who didn’t have access to them, as well as a big pack of resources. We tried to include a range of subjects, and had to be inventive with what children could do at home with minimal adult input. But the most important thing, in my opinion, for children to keep up, is reading.”

This term, she’s emailing home one pack of resources per week, which equates to around two hours of school work per day on online learning platforms which can be monitored remotely. “The reason I’m not setting more than that is that it’s a very different environment at home. Six hours of learning at school is not six hours of activities: it’s the discussion and challenging that helps children assimilate new ideas.”

Nicola’s expectations of her pupils seem realistic. A recent Pulse panel asked parents how much time their children spent studying each day. The most popular response was one to three hours.

Setting priorities for the family is a must

Christine and her family live in a village in rural Cumbria. Her 16-year-old son is dealing with a summer term with no GCSE examinations, and her 11-year-old twin daughters have had their SATs cancelled. Her son’s school has been encouraging Year 11 students to get ahead with their EPQs – an extended essay which equates to 50% of an A-level.

Christine says that her daughters’ school has just sent through a worksheet for the week with suggested learning activities in maths, English, science and history. She says: “I haven’t shown it to them yet. To be honest I think it’s more important for them to feel safe and secure. They’re all bright enough and old enough to read the news and know that horrendous things are going on. There’s enough for them to worry about without worrying about their academic progress.”

Instead, they’ve been spending much more time in the garden, riding their bikes, pitching tents to camp in, and helping their parents with conservation projects. They’re ready for a new challenge next year, and are pleased that SATs are off.

Pupils missing out on validation and rites of passage

Nicola’s class discovered that SATs were cancelled before the school closures. Their response was surprising: “Overwhelmingly, they were disappointed. One child in particular sticks in my mind. They said: ‘I’m kind of happy, but kind of sad because I thought I was going to do well. I’ve been getting better and better.’”

This made Nicola think about the validation children can receive from these assessments: “even though SATs are generally unpopular, these children saw them as a rite of passage that was taken away from them, leaving behind a loss of opportunity to showcase success.”

While the absence of exams brings its own unique stress, John, Nicola and Christine all highlight that one of the most difficult adjustments for children and teenagers to make is the loss of these rites of passage. John’s Year 11 pupils were looking forward to their prom, leavers’ assembly and results day itself. His own daughters, who are primary school age, have had their school play cancelled.

Christine’s daughters have been working since autumn term to prepare for their county gymnastics competition, which now won’t be taking place, and her son is concerned about missing the taster lessons that would guide his A-level choices. The highlight of the year for Nicola’s pupils was going to be ‘school journey’, a week-long residential trip to mark completing primary school.

Teachers need to protect their own mental health and wellbeing

As well as bridging the educational and pastoral gap, teachers have to protect their own mental health. John has found offering support to others has lifted his own spirits. “I’ve been sending the whole year group an email each morning with weird and wonderful music, ranging from the credit song to the Lego Movie to Jimmy Cliff. I’m trying to let them know that we’re all worried, but the world can carry on.” He’s also offered help to other members of staff who are facing lockdown alone, seeking solace in feeling useful.

Nicola’s sought to recreate the camaraderie she has with fellow teachers through an online staff book club. She’s also using the time to work on a children’s novel: “I let my class read the first chapter because we often talk about the writing I’m working on. They were really excited because they love the idea of reading something no one else has read before. I told them I would keep working on it during the school closure. It’s motivating me to keep going.”

Are there any positives to this educational upheaval?

Are there any positives to this educational upheaval? For parents supervising a full timetable from home, the vital work teachers do will surely come to the fore. So too, will the importance of extra-curricular activities. Having some fun is a great motivator for the day, but slowing down is also crucial. Hopefully, this will emphasise the importance of having a sense of allegiance to school, and how the incentive of rites of passage like assemblies, proms and school trips are as important for motivating students as the validation of exams. It should show that wellbeing and motivation comes from support and community. That's the key.

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