Looking after student and staff wellbeing during exam season: Part 1 of 3

The wellbeing of both students and staff alike has really been brought to the forefront of conversations in the last few years, not least because of the impact of the pandemic. 

It is true that schools are finding themselves to be held responsible for an ever-growing list of expectations, with wellbeing being one of them – and rightly so. When I was in Secondary school between 2000 and 2007, wellbeing wasn’t a conversation and, even if it had have been, there was no one in school to go and see anyway. Thankfully schools have changed since then and there is much more support on offer for students. 

In my school the wellbeing of staff and students is taken very seriously. In my role as Safeguarding and Welfare Officer, I work alongside the pastoral staff to ensure that the wellbeing of the school community is taken care of. The school have recently made a considerable investment into a new ‘Welfare Hub’ which provides students and staff with a safe space to go. In the hub we have a First Aid room, a Student Services Manager who deals with lost property, lockers etc, an SEMH mentor, myself as Safeguarding and Welfare Officer (DDSL/SEMH Mentor), the DSL and the SEND team. There is a small kitchen for staff, a meeting room and an open area with comfy chairs, bean bags, tables for group work and some booths for students taking tests etc or who want to sit on their own to focus. Students can self-refer for SEMH appointments and can either drop in or book regular slots. If students are feeling anxious and need a little time out, they can sit and do some mindful colouring, use fidget toys or use any strategy that works for them, knowing they are in a safe environment. 

The pandemic has had a massive effect on everyone and I’m not sure we will truly understand the impact for a few years. For exam groups, particularly those in Year 13, this will be even more apparent in the summer exam period. Our current Year 13 students were impacted by the pandemic whilst they were in Year 11, meaning they missed out on sitting their GCSE exams. They now face the prospect of sitting their A Levels having had no experience of sitting formal exams. Exam periods are always stressful for those involved, but when you add an element of the unknown into the mix, it becomes a different beast entirely. 

I have already mentioned the welfare hub that we have at our school. Around the exam season we tend to get busier as students are stressed, working too hard or are struggling with anxiety. We make sure to remind them that they have support that they can access at any time. There are posters around school with a QR code that takes them to a form they can fill in to request support. We run workshops in the lead up to exam season on dealing with stress and managing workloads. We also ran a breakfast club during the exam season for Year 11s: they would come in early to have some food and sit together talking and relaxing before their exam started. It was a great way to start each day. Also, at the beginning of Year 12, all students attend a workshop on effective A Level revision. Many will talk about the 4 hours of revision they did, but how much of that is actually productive? Is it quantity over quality? Giving the students the tools to revise effectively and ensuring they are confident in the subject is vital in empowering the students and giving them the confidence they need. 

For the staff in schools wellbeing is also an important consideration, with many staff buckling under the weight of expectations and workload. Staff wellbeing is at the centre of everything at our school. Staff have autonomy in the classrooms and there is very little interference. There are no invasive book checks or random observations/drop ins. Staff can go home for PPA in an afternoon if they want to. There is a real open door policy with SLT, who do duties every day and can always be seen around school. Staff also have access to external supervision twice a month. This is available to all staff, from site team to SLT and has been really well received. 

If schools are looking to implement changes then there are some simple things that they can do, however most are going to take time. Firstly, it is important to make sure there is an area that students can go to in their school where they feel safe and feel supported. This should be an area completely separate from where students might go if they have behaved poorly. Look at employing SEMH mentors, even if it is part-time over a few days to start with. Knowing they have someone to talk to outside of the teaching/academic staff will make a massive difference to students. Make sure that there is a culture of positivity in school and a nurturing culture. Simple acts such as having staff on gates/entrances each morning to greet students with a “good morning” and a smile can really make a difference. Longer-term changes will come from the SLT and the curriculum, which means making sure there is a real culture of wellbeing at the school, not just a few chocolates on a Friday. This isn’t something that happens overnight but is something that must be embedded and nurtured gradually.

For students heading into exams this year I think the main priorities should be: 

  1. Plan your time well. Create a timetable for your evenings in a similar way to what you have at school.
  2. Don’t wait until the month before to start revising! The work should be continuous throughout the year. It is much better to steadily build up to the exams rather than panicking 3 weeks before and becoming overwhelmed. 
  3. Make sure you know what you don’t know. Many students will highlight their notes for hours, maybe condensing the notes further. That’s all good, it might have some impact, but you are just revising what you already know. How do you know what you don’t know? Once you identify what you don’t know, you have something to work on.
  4. Take time out for yourself– this links back to point 1. Set aside time for yourself to relax and recharge. There is no point working for 17 hours a day and burning yourself out before an exam. Relax. 

Talk to your teachers. If you are unsure about something, discuss it. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. 

Thomas Michael – Safeguarding and Welfare Officer – Secondary school in the West Midlands.