‘No Man’s Jan’: approaches to what can be a very tricky month for Year 13 students
Updated: Jan 3, 2022
The concept of ‘the January blues’ has been around for years: the ‘comedown’ after the Christmas festivities, bleak weather, limited daylight hours and financial pressures are just some of the associated ‘symptoms’. In 2005, Dr Cliff Arnall came up with the term ‘Blue Monday’ which he ascribed to the third Monday in January, based on a pseudo-scientific formula which “takes into account the following factors: weather conditions, debt level (the difference between debt accumulated and our ability to pay), time since Christmas, time since failing our new year’s resolutions, low motivational levels and feeling of a need to take action.” Following much criticism from various mental health charities (who have rightly raised concerns about differentiating between Seasonal Affective Disorder and depression), Arnall has recently changed his tune and is now advocating January as a time for fresh starts and positivity!
Whilst it is clear that Arnall’s ‘Blue Monday’ was nothing more than a marketing ploy, I believe that January can represent a particularly tricky time for Year 13 students – but not for the reasons outlined above. I do not wish to generalise and, clearly, there will be some students who sail through January unaffected by the factors I outline below, but I think there are some key reasons why many students find this month a particularly challenging one, especially in the current climate of the pandemic. I hope to highlight some potential risk factors along with approaches that seek to mitigate these and ensure all students feel supported throughout the start of the year.
So why is January a potentially unsettling time and what can we do to alleviate this?
The pandemic has affected this Year 13 cohort more than any other: students have seen disruption to the last three academic years; have had no experience of external examinations and have had to adapt to periods of remote learning whilst transitioning both into the sixth form and into adulthood. They really are remarkable. The reason Covid is an issue in January specifically is directly because of this past experience. Last January was spent in lockdown, with students plunged back into the world of remote learning that they had thought was a thing of the past. This January, our Year 13 students prepare to return to school faced with lateral flow testing on site and a second consecutive Christmas holiday saturated with news of another worrying Covid variant. There will be inevitable disruption due to staff and student absence throughout January (and beyond) and so many students will undoubtedly return to school with increased anxiety around how this might affect them and their families.
Realistically, schools can do very little to counter anxiety around Covid; this is a societal issue and one that is very difficult to reduce. What we can do is ensure any changes to guidance are clearly communicated and repeated regularly, along with ensuring students adhere to the measures in place around mask-wearing and ventilation. The consistency of schools’ response throughout the pandemic may provide reassurance in and of itself.
Even before news of Omicron broke, Year 13 students were asking how their exams next year might be affected, having been given assurances from the DfE that they WILL go ahead:
“The government is clear that students entering GCSEs, AS or A levels in 2022 should expect to take exams in the summer and complete any non-exam assessments in the usual way throughout the year….students taking AS and A levels will be given advance information about the focus of the content of the exams to support their revision….The advance information for GCSE and AS and A levels will be published no later than 7 February 2022.”
This delay in communicating definitive information has only exacerbated students’ anxieties around exams this year – January, therefore, is part of this ‘waiting game’ which could have easily been avoided by publishing advance information within the November guidance itself. The wait until 7th February for further detail adds to the ongoing ‘limbo’ many students are feeling. If we couple this with the fact that most schools conduct mock examinations for Year 13 in January, we can see why exam anxiety will be something for all schools to address. When we also consider that the November guidance talks of Teacher Assessed Grades as part of their contingency measures should exams be cancelled, mock exams take on even more importance for our students.
In my view, the only way to address this is to show our students that we genuinely care about it. Again, this comes back to communication. We must firstly listen to their concerns; it is important that they feel acknowledged and heard. In the sixth form I lead, we have set up a project called ‘C.A.L.M’ (Communicate, Acknowledge, Learn, Motivate) to try and alleviate some of our students’ anxieties around exams. This is heavily influenced by student voice and we are responding to concerns raised by ensuring staff are aware of how students are feeling, how they feel feedback helps them to move forwards most effectively and how we can all use language positively to foster more confidence in our young people. We can also create more opportunities to run ‘mock’ examinations; previously our Year 13 assessment weeks were conducted within the classroom, other than for their January mocks. We are considering the next assessment window being held in exam venues too, so that our students have more ‘practice’ of this ahead of their summer exams (especially given that they didn’t experience an exam series in the summer of Year 11).
How we frame the purpose of mock exams is therefore essential; if we are asking students to do more exam practice we need them to recognise why this will be useful. Prior to the Christmas holiday our Head of Year 13 delivered an assembly to do exactly this. He compared mock exams to other scenarios in which participants practise ahead of the final event: rehearsals for productions, flight simulation for trainee pilots, training camps for Olympians. He also pointed out that our students should see Pre-Public Examinations as an opportunity to identify for themselves how they study most effectively and where there are gaps in their knowledge which can be addressed ahead of the summer – giving them a sense of control over a period in which they feel they have so little is potentially very powerful in terms of motivation. Alongside the assembly, we provided a ‘Preparing for PPEs’ page on our website with videos for students and their parents covering effective revision techniques, detail on the ‘C.A.L.M’ project and strategies for managing use of mobile phones and social media to optimise study. The videos allow students and their parents to revisit the information as and when they find it necessary.
3. Post-18 applications
The above factors are stress-inducing enough, but we must also consider that the UCAS deadline also falls within January – now at the later date of the 26th. Many students will have submitted their applications prior to the Christmas holidays, but, especially this year, many will continue to submit throughout January. Both from anecdotal feedback via sixth form leaders’ forums and from UCAS Digital Learning Manager, Sam Sykes’ contribution to the netsixthform.co.uk Heads of Sixth Form Conference in November, applications this year appear to be slower than in previous admissions cycles. Add to this the fact that many Russell Group universities are delaying sending offers until after the UCAS deadline (possibly out of fear of ‘over-offering’ as many did last year, leading to deferred places and issues with accommodation), and we have yet more stress for our Year 13 students to endure. There will be students who received all five offers before Christmas, and others, who applied at a similar time, who may not hear from all universities until February or March; more waiting. Students automatically discuss offers and invitations to interviews they have received, so for students yet to hear this can be particularly tricky.
Whilst we can do nothing within schools to speed up university offer-making, we can communicate the likely delay in the decision-making process this year. We can also emphasise the uniqueness of all applications and remind students not to try and compare the progress of their applications with friends as no two applications are the same. Mock interviews can also be really helpful to those who have invitations, along with sharing advice around online interviews more generally (as the majority are still taking place virtually this year).
Alongside UCAS, we also need to be mindful of students whose preference is to apply for apprenticeships or employment and ensure they are fully supported throughout this period – one to one mentoring of these students is vital to help them build a strong basis for any applications they wish to make. We encourage all our students to write a personal statement for this reason (even if they do not plan to go to university), so they have something ready to adapt as and when opportunities arise. If there are young people who are still completely undecided about their career or post-18 goals, an appointment with a qualified careers advisor is an absolute must.
4. Transition to adulthood
Whilst coping with all of the above time-sensitive stressors, we must not lose sight of the fact that our Year 13 students are transitioning to adulthood throughout this time. Many will already have celebrated their 18th birthdays, passed their driving tests, held down paid employment, had their hearts broken, encountered issues on alcohol-fuelled nights out or dealt with many of the other trials and tribulations of life as a young adult. One of the joys of leading in the sixth form is witnessing this transition and seeing our young people flourish into responsible adults. This process though, is far from smooth for most. Young people must feel able to discuss the range of issues this transition presents, with trusted adults whose advice they value. This requires long-term, strong student-staff relationships which, when at their best, empower our young people to believe in themselves and, ultimately, to prosper. This takes expertise, time and effort to achieve, and is the bedrock of successful sixth form provision.
In my experience, this trust is earned over time and is one which can only build if young people feel heard. I have written before about the joy of students in this age group becoming passionately vocal in their beliefs. If we can harness this successfully, it can be really powerful.
An example of this in action at my school was our recent student-led ‘Coffee, Cake and Confidence’ event. Our sixth form students have regularly suggested that they struggle with issues around perfectionism and put enormous pressure on themselves to live up to various ideals, both academically and socially. Our school hosted a Menopause Café for staff earlier in the year and our student leaders wondered if a similar event, offering a relaxed forum for discussion, might work for sixth form students. They then came up with a name for the event and a logo and planned a lunchtime café event in full, including ordering the food with the finance office, booking the room and liaising with staff. The event was a huge success, with student leaders delivering speeches, conversation starter prompt cards provided to facilitate discussions and a closing speech from our Senior Tutor in charge of Wellbeing, offering simple strategies for dealing with perfectionism and signposting to further support and guidance. We hope that this event, alongside ‘Wellbeing Workshops’ (small group sessions, offering practical strategies to move forward) offered half termly and based on topics students have identified as issues - such as motivation and dealing with worry (the focus of our January workshops) - will build confidence in our students over time and arm them with practical ways to overcome at least some of their anxieties.
There are some common themes that emerge when we consider how best to support our Year 13 students throughout this tricky month and beyond: care, communication and positivity. We must take all opportunities to show our students that we care about and acknowledge their concerns. We must ensure we communicate clearly and regularly; even when there is no updated Government guidance, simply communicating that this is the case still provides much-needed reassurance. Above all, we must take all opportunities to highlight the positives; whether this is in the language we use in our assessment feedback, or in celebrating student successes within and beyond the classroom.
With so much on the plates of our Year 13 students as they begin 2022, this is surely the least we can do.
 https://inews.co.uk/news/health/blue-monday-what-meaning-january-today-why-formula-explained-833871  https://metro.co.uk/2018/01/05/man-invented-blue-monday-apologises-making-january-even-harder-7207054/  I should also state that there will be many students who have diagnosed mental health issues, for whom these factors may be even more acute, and I am not advocating alternatives to any medical advice they may have received. Any students with a diagnosed mental health condition should be supported as per advice from their medical professionals.  https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/guidance-on-contingency-arrangements-for-gcses-as-and-a-levels-in-summer-2022/guidance-for-schools-colleges-and-other-exam-centres-on-contingency-arrangements-for-students-entering-gcses-as-and-a-levels-the-advanced-extension
January Blues image taken from https://www.insafehandstraining.com/blog/january-blues-mental-health-mood/