Wednesday Wisdom

March 20, 2024

Testing Times

By Patrick Cragg

Testing Times


2,000 days. From your child’s first day in Reception to the day they sit down to their first GCSE exam twelve years later, they’ve probably spent just over 2,000 days in school. Goes quickly, doesn’t it?

Whatever school you choose for your children, whatever subjects they take, whatever pathway they imagine for their future, exams are the immovable milestones of education. Exams are a global rite of passage for all young people, from the first phonics screening in the early days of Primary School, to KS2 SATs, 11+ and entrance exams, GCSEs, A-Levels or the IB. Not to mention driving tests, instrumental exams, sports trials and more!

If 2024 brings your family’s first exam season, especially for parents of GCSE-age children, this build-up period is an understandably nervous time, when you might start to worry that your child isn’t working hard enough or that they are pushing themselves too much and might burn out. Perhaps you can’t decide whether to nudge your child or ‘push’ them, bribe them or comfort them? You want to reassure them that you’ll love them no matter what grades they get, but you still worry about how they will do and the impact it might have on their lives.

Let’s be honest: exams are important. Good results open the door to further study and to a wider choice of schools, colleges, universities and job opportunities. Your child’s grades will one day appear on job application forms and are taken as evidence, fairly or not, of a person’s aptitude and potential. I’ve always been particularly aggravated by the unhelpful lineup of “celebrities” who chime in around results day every year to brag about the success they achieved with minimal grades. The fact that a handful of people get famous without qualifications doesn’t make that a desirable path. For the majority of young people, good qualifications are the “best bet” for their future.

At the same time, the exam process can often seem frustrating and unhelpful. Exams are “fair” in some senses: all candidates take the same tests in the same strict conditions, submitted and marked anonymously by external examiners. In that sense, they’re fair.

But exams won’t seem “fair” if your child suffers from anxiety that prevents them from achieving their best. They won’t seem fair if there’s a family crisis, bereavement or trauma in the months leading up to exams. They won’t seem fair if your child just has a bad day. It happens. Ultimately, would you find it “fair” to be tested in 25 written exams over ten different academic subjects in the space of a month? Probably not. If your child is targeting a grade “8” for English and Maths, it’s worth asking yourself how many adults you know who could achieve that grade in both subjects without extensive revision, re-learning or access to a time machine!

Ideally, parents would put themselves in the shoes of their children first in the run-up to exams. Try to imagine the anxiety that comes with being told your future hangs on your performance in exams. Imagine the burden of responsibility we put on teenagers to “make us proud” and “fulfil their potential”. Remember that no matter how proficient your child is in different subjects, exams are hard. They require students to retain enormous amounts of information and use it in very specific ways under pressured circumstances.

At this stage in an exam year, the best thing you can have is a strong sense of realism. Be realistic about likely exam grades and try not to pressure your children into exceeding them. Be realistic about what revision will look like: teenagers won’t just switch into “revision mode” and use every waking hour to prepare for exams. They need support in maintaining an achievable, healthy schedule. As part of co-creating that schedule, ask curious and caring questions about how your child is feeling and remind them that you are ‘in it together’. Talk as a family about what optimal support looks like for your child over the weeks ahead. Be sensitive to planning family events that could disrupt the rhythm of revision and study.

Remember: in the exam, with all that preparation and anxiety and expectation on their shoulders, your child will almost certainly do the very best they can. And for getting through a difficult exam season, for completing twelve years of education, for making it through all the stages and challenges and changes that come in that time, you’ll have every reason to be proud.


Luckily, there’s plenty of time between mid-March and the end of June for students to make progress towards their targets. In fact, my experience as a teacher is that this is the crucial time for deciding how well exams will go. There’s always a temptation, as the end of school draws closer, for students to think “let’s just get it over with”. But those students who keep persevering, who keep studying and practising and adding to their store of knowledge, are the ones who peak at the right time when exams begin.

Even if your children are reluctant to let you near their folders or exercise books, you can still take a lead in creating the right environment at home and supporting a successful working routine. Help to create a space in the home where your teenager can work. It doesn’t need to be alone upstairs! The kitchen table can work well and can be a place where there’s “just enough” adult interaction to help them feel accountable and not too bored. But it does need to be somewhere well-lit and large enough to spread out a bit. Warn siblings to stay away and to keep their own noise down a bit. As an A-Level student, I was lucky that my father was able to find a spare office in his workplace where I could sit without any distractions whatsoever. It worked for me.

As far as possible, help your child pin down specific targets and outcomes for that day’s revision. “Doing History” isn’t a productive goal for the following hour, but “revise my notes on the causes of WW2 and complete a practice twelve-mark answer” is. Remember that reading through notes one has already made is not an effective revision strategy: learning is cemented, and new insights come, when students use that information for something.

Help teens structure their time, but I don’t recommend banning or cancelling their regular leisure activities. A video gaming session is well deserved after an intense session of study. Physical exercise carries a wealth of benefits that are relevant to academic achievement, so encourage them to keep up sports fixtures and gym trips. And in my personal opinion, once revision time starts, phones need to be handed over and kept out of sight. If they can’t bear to have it outside the room, perhaps suggest they use the Forest app (which will cultivate digital trees) during periods of focused study time.


In a recent Tooled Up webinar, Dr Simon Green defined stress as a “discrepancy between demands and resources”. Stress occurs when we feel we do not have the resources to meet the demands placed on us. So to reduce the anxiety of exams, there are two avenues we can take: clearly understand the demands of upcoming exams, and bolster the resources available to achieve our potential.

If you’re worried about your child’s mental health, whether in the run-up to exams or for any other reason, it’s important to get information and help. The NHS and several UK charities offer support and advice on mental health for young people, for example Mind.

If you don’t already know, find out from your child’s teachers exactly which exam board and specification they’re sitting. Anyone can download past papers from exam board websites. Sometimes the most recent ones are locked for teachers only, but there is more than enough material to get a good sense of the exam format and the demands it makes. Ask your child if they have been given a schedule of their exams; this information is readily available online if not. Keep a copy of the exams calendar in a visible place in the home, easily visible to everyone.

There is a wealth of study-related material online for every subject online, ideal for topics where your child feels they need a little more explanation. Schools often recommend ‘go to’ sites like BBC Bitesize, which is entirely free to use. I think sites like Mr Bruff and Maths Genie are pretty good revision aids for subjects like English and Maths and Save my Exams is a truly excellent source of test questions. All teachers will have different recommended sites so ensure your child has asked their school which sites might be optimal for their particular revision needs.

Are you a Tooled Up member?

Tooled Up members can access a wealth of resources to support revision and managing stress in the build-up to exams.

If you want some fresh tips on the topics mentioned above, Tooled Up parents are invited to join our “Dealing With Exam Stress" webinar on Thursday, 21st March at 13:30 (GMT). It should be suitable for students and parents to attend. Register here.

If you don’t have a schedule for exams this year, download our 2024 Exam Planner to fill in and put somewhere visible. If your child wants help with revision techniques or inspiration for something to break up their routine, our Smart Reviser resource contains plenty of tips and techniques for making information stick.

This article on Questions to Ask Older Teens Ahead of Exams will help you open a valuable line of communication with your teen. This video on “Nudging and Pushing” can help you find the right words of encouragement for students as they look ahead to exam season.

The “Wobble Ladder” is a useful tool for setting small, step-by-step goals towards things that make children nervous or anxious.

Lastly, remember that nutrition during exam season matters. Read up on the importance of breakfast and please ensure your teen avoids things like energy drinks to stay alert as in addition to potentially making them anxious, they can also inhibit sleep. Read our advice from paediatric dietitian Anjanee Kohli on the nutrition tips that can help children stay healthy and fuelled up during study and exams.