Jayne Dowle: Hard work pays off – the life lesson of seven hours a day revising for exams

To what extent should children revise for exams?
To what extent should children revise for exams?
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THIS will not make me popular with parents. And it certainly won’t gain much favour with my son who is about to take his GCSEs. In principle, I agree with former Harrow School headteacher Barnaby Lenon. He’s the one who says that youngsters should revise for seven hours a day over the Easter holidays, or aim for 100 hours in total.

Psychologists have railed against him, warning of the potential damage to mental health associated with intense study. Other leading teachers have made considered comments about the effectiveness of taking regular breaks and suggested mobile phones might have a lot to answer for.

Harrow School headteacher Barnaby Lenon.

Harrow School headteacher Barnaby Lenon.

Meanwhile Mumsnet, that last redoubt of concerned motherhood, has put forth the helpful view that the “children” who are obliged to revise for GCSEs and A-levels should “not chain themselves to their desks”.

And then we wonder why so many teenagers – especially in state schools – regularly fail to achieve even the basic qualifications in the public examinations which determine the course of their life.

Last year in Barnsley, where I live, the local council proudly announced the “best year ever” for GCSE results in mathematics and English. A standard pass (grades 4 to 9) was achieved in both subjects by 59 per cent of pupils.

Even with my own shaky grasp on maths, this still leaves more than 40 per cent of our school leavers going out into the world without these most basic of qualifications. Would the head of any independent school be pleased with such results? I don’t think so. And so we start to scratch the surface of the huge smoke and mirrors charade obscuring some truths about education.

Admire him or loathe him, former Education Secretary Michael Gove went to great pains to overhaul GCSEs in his quest to improve standards. The new exams are rigorous, exacting and leave little room for coursework. This is just one half of the equation however. In return, pupils must work harder than ever before to achieve even a basic pass. Teachers understand this. Some parents understand this. Teenagers, however, take some persuading.

And this leads directly to the great revision dilemma, which I understand both at first-hand and as a parent. There is simply no substitute for hard work, irrespective of your ability. But how much is enough? “Other students will be working hard. So it is worthwhile sacrificing your holidays,” says Lenon. “The best GCSE and A-level results don’t go to the cleverest students – they go to those who revised in the Easter holidays.”

That said, seven hours a day does sound onerous for 15 and 16-year-olds, Then again, seven hours a day doing anything except playing video games, sleeping or watching Netflix sounds onerous to your average 21st century teenager. I know I sound like my mother, but how would these snowflakes have coped if they had left school and gone straight to work in a factory from early morning until four or five o’clock in the afternoon? A seven-hour shift? It was a luxury.

My own academic life is littered with embarrassing failures. However, by the time I reached university finals, I was determined that no exam was going to get the better of me.

Amongst other painful things, I committed to total recall every single Middle English translation likely to appear in front of me. I still have exam anxiety dreams to this day. Mentally scarred? Probably, but at least I learned that hard work brings rewards.

I might as well tell you, because I’ve been telling my son this for months now and he’s clearly not listening. Seven hours? It’s a good day if he puts in a full 60 minutes. I’m not going to waste space here by reiterating the endless words of encouragement, random acts of support and I’ll admit, begging entreaty of these past few months.

In short, I helped Jack create a “learning space” in his bedroom (by sweeping almost everything off the surface of his desk into the bin). I bought him a set of coloured marker pens and a calendar to draw up a revision plan. I’ve offered him lifts to and from school, where his dedicated teachers are holding daily Easter holiday revision sessions. I’ve downloaded apps and found websites, offered to test him on his history and type up his drama log book. And I’ve even mentioned the possibility of monetary bribes. But if he doesn’t want to revise, he won’t.

And in August – as I’ve warned him – when he’s looking at his list of GCSE results and kicking himself for playing Fortnite when he should have been memorising the periodic table, he’ll only have himself to blame. If our Jack achieves little else, this will be one life lesson he does learn.