The final nail in the study leave coffin?

So it’s just Statistics GCSE left for us now. An intrepid band of 59 of our students who had chosen at the end of year 10 to study stats are still in school. And when I say “in school” I still really mean it. Ninestiles has never really had study leave as I remember it from school. We’ve always had the students in until pretty much the first exam and then they were left to their own devices to prepare. Except that own devices bit had got smaller and smaller. The next step was to have lessons as planned until a chosen examination had finished and then to eliminate that from the timetable ensuring a smaller and smaller attendance until the final exam. In recent years we had moved toward this model with just an extra few revision sessions thrown in directly before the exam. It was well planned but like many schools in areas of high deprivation and low income we had struggled to get the students and parents to buy into this period.

This year however, we went the whole hog…

About 2 months before the examinations began the four curriculum Assistant Principals at Ninestiles, of which i’m one (twitter handles – @alexhughesnine, @vcreedonnine, @BeetisonJade, @SyAndersonnine) sat down with the year 11 timetable, the exam timetable and the BIG list of each student and their current grades. We (rather painstakingly) went through every period of the timetable from the beginning of the exam period, yes right back at the English IGCSE paper, to the Stats paper on Thursday and mapped in what we needed each session to look like.

We started with the point of view that the students should experience as much normality as possible all the way up to the exam. A quick google search of thoughts on study leave reveals a huge range of thoughts from those advocating students being in all the time right up to those that think we should completely allow students to study on their own. I read one blog by Helen Cadbury in 2014 (http://www.yorkmix.com/news/opinion/exam-students-forced-to-stay-in-school-as-study-leave-cancelled/) which talked of students “being forced to stay in school full-time” and spoke of students making their own choices “kids vote with their feet or the parents are forced to lie about made up illnesses”.

Now i’m going to nail my colours to the mast early here and say I disagree with these thoughts. Firstly, students have been in school for 12 or 13 years by this point of their life, the only thing that changes is our mindset in addressing the exam series. No-one thought sending them home in year 6 was a good idea before their SATS or in the old days before year 9 SATS. Indeed at no other juncture in their whole academic life to this point has anyone thought that the best way to prepare a student for what they face is to send them away. With one month left that is what many people choose. I can’t say I understand the logic!

Many points that are raised in the debate for study leave are well intentioned I believe but not entirely logical. I hear the thought that students will become stressed and overworked if they stay in school throughout the exams. I can only speak for the students I work with but I know that actually the familiarity of routine and structure of a timetable is reassuring to them. Seeing the same face that has cared for them, guided them, worked on their weaknesses and given them belief is incredibly comforting for the students. I will accede that for a small minority of students (perhaps a bigger group in other contexts) the freedom to study at home, on their own terms and away from distraction is of benefit and linked to this perhaps the most convincing argument for study leave is that students have the potential to waste their time in school and be put into meaningless, crowd control style “revision sessions”. So this is the area we really focused on addressing.

With that plan of all the exams, the lessons and the student priorities we set about mapping our ideal session into the timetable. To avoid meaningless sessions we immediately converted “finished” English lessons to become maths periods for those not undertaking English literature. For the 60 or so students who were still to complete English Literature we did of course continue with their usual provision therein. We temporarily juggled other year group priorities to free up the maths staff (using what used to be termed “gain time”) to provide the extra sessions. Wherever exams were imminent we planned a revision session the day before that exam and on the morning to get the students in the right frame of mind.

Where students had multiple exams in close proximity we focused on providing the one that would be of greatest need or benefit to the student. As subjects finished the timetable for each student would become increasingly full of their remaining lessons. It was a logistical nightmare and could never have been remotely achieved without the flexibility of our staff and the dedication of our admin team. However, I also believe it was a logistical masterpiece too.

We sold it well to our students. Discussed it with them, underlined why we thought it was of benefit and provided them with their very own completely personalised timetable. We reassured them that the sessions would be with their usual teacher as far as possible or with a subject expert in all but the most exceptional circumstances. We put in provision for the lost and wondering students and sat back ready to see the voting with their feet and mystery illnesses mentioned earlier. For most students, right until the end, it never came. In fact we were probably a victim of our own success in some cases. We envisaged some natural waning of our students attendance in the later weeks and staffed accordingly. It never really materialised. Indeed, even as an optimistic maths teacher I thought three sessions in one day for some students would be too much but most came to all and were motivated and engaged throughout! If I compare this to the previous year when I was getting single figures of students from my two combined C/D borderline groups then i’m delighted. Indeed one of my most difficult, least engaged and motivated students said that the process was a bit annoying but really helpful and laughed one day commenting that they wouldn’t have even been out of bed yet let alone revising at a 13:35 start session!

And so now we have just the 59 left for stats, we have cut them some slack in the final days, it was just the two sessions out of three today.

Like so many things at this time of year, it’s hard to truly evaluate the impact of this personalised timetable on each student. Once we see the results we might be able to pick out a thread running through the students that had full attendance and possibly the ones that had prioritised sessions. I do know one person that has been reassured by the whole process though – me!

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