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  • Writer's pictureClaire Green

Year 13: Turning Apathy and Indecision into Positive Action and Success

Updated: Jan 28

 

Every year, the process of encouraging and supporting Year 13 through their final months of schooling makes for a very busy time.  There are rounds of mock examinations, interventions, revision sessions, wellbeing support, post-18 applications and prom organisation, even before we reach the final examination period.  Following several Covid-affected years in education, this year’s cohort of Year 13 students have had the first ‘normal’ entire sixth form experience for several years.  Whether this has made them more ready for the final push towards exams, though, is debatable.  I have noticed (and have seen other sixth form leaders reflecting on the same in some online forums) much more uncertainty and indecision among our students than in previous years, and for some students, a sense of apathy about this final crucial stage of their education.


I have noticed this most acutely when it comes to university applications.  Whilst the deadline for UCAS has always been in January, I have always endeavoured to send UCAS applications off before Christmas for the vast majority of students.  I have noticed, since Covid, that this has been much more challenging.  Many students are slower to apply and this year, this seems to be even more of an issue.  In previous years, often the applications sent in January were those of some of our more disorganised students – those who struggle with deadlines consistently. This year, there are definitely some of these students: not sure that university is actually what they want and therefore unsure around course choices without having completed the required research to narrow down their options.  This indecision and apathy then leads to stress and feelings of anxiety for students who feel the mounting pressure of the UCAS deadline (with many of their peers already having received offers) and a growing sense that they ‘should’ know what they want to do when they leave school. 


In addition, however, we have a significant number of extremely conscientious and academically able students this year who are delaying the UCAS process to give themselves more time to make decisions. They are more forensic in their research about both the offers generally issued by each university and the job prospects of students attending particular institutions.  They are meticulously researching exactly which eligibility criteria hold more weight for each institution, which might issue contextual offers, when they generally send offers and whether there is any point in selecting ‘insurance’ choices with lower entry grades at all.  These same students are often on their twenty-somethingth draft of their personal statements, despite their tutors having approved much earlier versions.  Despite knowing exactly what they want to do, they too experience stress and feelings of anxiety as they put so much pressure on themselves to make ‘the right decisions’.


These feelings also spill over into how students view mock examinations and the results of these and to their approaches to independent study and revision.


So why is there both this apathy and indecision, and what can we do to ensure that all students work through this period and move towards positive action as their final exams approach?


1.      Meet students where they are


We cannot know how to support students on their paths to success if we do not take the time to discuss how they are feeling, individually.  This takes time (especially if you have a large sixth form) but is so important in making our students feel valued – when we conduct student voice exercises it is clear that students of this age want to be ‘seen and heard’. Tutors have a vital role to play here as those seeing the students on a daily basis.  If it is clear that there are students who are stressed or ‘burying their heads in the sand’, tutors can start the process of finding out why.  If the issue is more severe, Heads of Year or senior leaders can also hold these conversations. I have noticed a range of factors at play: fear of failure, disappointing parents, choosing ‘the wrong’ courses, and/or financial concerns.


Once students have explained how they are feeling, you can begin to make plans in response.  At this point, it is crucial that we convey a message of reassurance that students still have time to make a difference before their final exams; often, they feel they do not and this can lead to students feeling that any effort is futile.


2.      Provide support


Regardless of the cause of the stress students are experiencing, it is vital to ensure you have multiple possibilities in place for them when it comes to support.  The one-to-one conversations with staff mentioned above may be sufficient, but for those who require more, think about what your offer entails. 


We have developed our wellbeing provision massively in recent years so that students have a range of options.  Alongside our Wellbeing Google Classrooms, 'Wellbeing Wednesdays' and cafés I have written about previously, we now have access to a range of support through our local NHS Mental Health Support Team, who accept referrals for individual students and also offer in-school group workshops.  We invited the team into school to deliver an initial assembly to the whole sixth form so students knew that we were taking their wellbeing seriously by reaching out to professionals in the field. This communication of the purpose and expertise of the team has meant that students are generally positive when we suggest either making a referral for them or that they attend a workshop. The sixth form workshop the MHST held last week on managing anxiety was very well-attended, with a follow-up planned this coming week.  Timing is another key consideration – we offered the sessions between our two mock examination periods for Year 13 deliberately.  We hope our students will both be reassured that some feelings of anxiety are completely normal when experiencing the demands of being a sixth form student and also gain useful coping strategies if these feelings start to become unmanageable.  The workshops are open to both Years 12 and 13 in order that we might help Year 12 students to approach Year 13 more effectively moving forwards.


3. Communicate consistently


One of the ways to build a sense of positivity is through our communications strategy within school. We must ensure we are clear in our messaging about important information such as post-18 pathways processes and mock examinations.  This includes letters and emails sent to students and families, along with social media content, displays and screens around school, staff briefings and corridor conversations.  Ensure any messaging around support available – both academic and pastoral – is equally clear and concise.  I find that we tend to have most impact from messages shared via Instagram of an evening, whether that is sharing revision sessions timetables or advertising the latest wellbeing workshop.


Alongside this, we must also ensure that we are celebrating the good: this might be in keeping an eye on UCAS offers and congratulating individuals when they receive offers (don’t underestimate how much of an impact this might have on a student who may not have support at home, for example), nominating students for rewards through your usual school processes (even Year 13 students like to be acknowledged in this way - they love a sticker for example!), emailing tutors to let them know information that might help them to reinforce the positivity, inviting alumni back to discuss how much they are loving their post-18 destinations; the options are endless.  Seizing the opportunity to find the positive cannot have anything but a beneficial impact.


4. Maintain routines


In times of uncertainty, routines can provide stability.  It is important then, that school routines continue for Year 13 students – expectations to attend tutor time, arrive punctually to lessons, hand in homework, etc are all important.  Equally important, though, are routines around examinations as we head towards the summer.  Ensure mock examinations are conducted exactly as the ‘real’ exams will be – contact home for students who miss papers, have all the usual signage on the doors, insist that all the JCQ rules are followed as they would be for external exams, hold the exams in the same rooms as you will in the summer and apply as similar an approach to results day as you can. 


This year, we have planned a mock results day on the final day of this half term when we will invite students to the library to collect their results envelopes and then all students will sit with a member of the sixth form or senior leadership teams to have a one-to-one conversation about their results: how did they revise, have the got the resources they need, do they know when revision sessions are taking place, do they require any further support and what are their post-18 plans?  A shared spreadsheet completed in these meetings means that the Head of Year 13 and I can then follow up on any issues raised in a timely manner.  Again: another opportunity for students to feel ‘seen and heard’ with time available to follow up effectively.

 


There are some common themes that emerge when we consider how best to support our Year 13 students in the final few terms: care, communication and positivity. We must take all opportunities to show our students that we care about and acknowledge their concerns – meet them where they are and give them a sense of ownership and agency in their final months at school. We must ensure we communicate clearly and regularly about all matters and to all stakeholders involved in their potential success (families, staff, students, outside agencies). Above all, we must take all opportunities to highlight the positives; whether this is in congratulating students on post-18 offers, in the language we use in our assessment feedback, or in celebrating student successes within and beyond the classroom.

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