Graham Elsdon looks at ways to help new sixth form students deal with the aftermath of cancelled GCSEs
Next term’s new year 12 students may well begin their new course feeling like one of those pop acts who’ve scored a number one, but haven’t actually played on the record. The necessary cancellation of exams has caused a variety of reactions in students – surprise, disappointment, and even a guilty type of glee – but perhaps the most insidious of all, the creeping sense that without the test of a real exam, their grades are a sham, they are imposters, and their education has been wasted.
Entirely understandable, of course, but wrong. Education is a process, not merely the final exam. While they may not have had the questionable joy of sitting in a fetid sports hall furiously scribbling reasons why Gerald Croft is a cad, these students have done the hard miles. They’ve already read, discussed and written about the texts. They’ve done literature. And this has got to be the starting point for commencing their new courses – building up confidence, reassuring and encouraging students so they throw themselves into their new world.
So how can we help this group of students get off to a confident start?
- Show them how far they’ve come already. Remind them how much skill and knowledge they have. In the hurried last days before lockdown, my son’s English teacher did two great things to help students deal with the shock of cancelled exams. She got the class to compare their last essay in year 11 with their year 9 work to show how far they’d come. She also gave them a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird to take away, a reminder that literature doesn’t always need an exam specification to justify its worth.
- Embrace the freedom. GCSE literature has much to recommend it, but for good reasons in many schools, it’s a world where texts choices are narrow. Russell and Priestley (who sound like an out-of-town furniture store) reign supreme. Shakespeare is omnipresent of course, but there’s no stopping students enjoying engaging, edgy material at the start of their new course. Loot, Jerusalem, The Cement Garden, The Wasp Factory, Misery and the like are great places to begin and may even feed into NEA choices later in the course.
- Help them to write. Undoubtedly, the last push before an exam and the endurance test of the exam season sharpens students’ writing. Many will arrive in September not having written anything substantial for months. They’ll need practice and like every year 12, they’ll need help with phrasing. Academic writing is the real challenge for new A level students. Best to tackle this head on – literature is a writing as well as a reading course, and it’s very easy in the first weeks of a course to do minimal writing while books are being read and the novelty of sixth form life plays out. Put the practice of writing at the heart of the course more than ever.
- Get some exam practice in. You can’t replicate the experience of exams, but early mocks might help allay some students’ anxieties and go some way to overcoming their imposter syndrome. Many schools have stepped away from AS levels recently, but there may be a case for sitting them next year to build confidence and giving students the tangible reward of a certificate that tells a different story to GCSE.
At the time of writing, it’s difficult to say what the new normal will be in September. But if there’s a silver lining in the recent misery, it might just be that new students will emerge from it with a greater sense of what it is to be human. In The History Boys, Timms says that he finds literature hard to understand because ‘Most of the stuff poetry’s about hasn’t happened to us yet.’ Recent experiences have invited young people more than ever to countenance mortality, empathy, love, disappointment and politics – the very stuff that literature explores. My feeling is that the new year 12s will want to prove something. It may well be that September’s year 12 will be the best yet.
Graham Elsdon is a teacher, author and consultant at www.theenglishline.com