The start of a new term is full of anticipation - and fear, if your children are facing exams. This year it's a case of all change when it comes to the new GCSE courses as pupils starting in year 10 (taking exams in July 2014) will be studying for 'linear' courses, meaning they have just one set of exams at the end of two years - like the A Level (or the old O Level). Any student in the middle of the course will continue in the old, modular style with regular exams taken over the year.
The aim of this new system is to restore confidence in the GCSE, which has been increasingly criticised in the last few years for reducing standards. We talked to two educators about the changes and how they prepare their students for the big exams.
Dr Julian Murphy is the Director of Studies at Woldingham School in Caterham, Surrey. He is responsible for the curriculum, as well as the quality of teaching and learning at the independent girls' school, while Francie Healy is the headmaster of Bethany School in Goudhurst. Like many schools, both give a great deal of support to students to ensure they choose the best options for their ability, interest and career paths.
Dr Murphy said: 'It's absolutely crucial that people make the right choices and it can be tricky for a number of reasons. People aren't always thinking about the whole picture, for example, a girl might think she wants to do economics at university but she may not realise she needs maths for it.
'The vast majority of girls will take 10 GCSEs. It's usually pretty straightforward for GCSE - the core subjects ensure everyone has a breadth. It's more difficult for them to make the choice at A/S.
'We help the girls in a number of ways. We have an ongoing careers programme which builds up over the years and this can help them in their long term goals, although these can change.
'The girls get an options talk from me in the autumn and I send out a Powerpoint of the talk to parents. In November they have a Parent Teacher Meeting dedicated to the choices, which they make over the Christmas holidays. I will often have parents on the phone or the email and girls to ask about particular choices.'
Pupils at Bethany School in Goudhurst are given this care and attention, as headmaster Mr Healy told Wealden Times. 'We start the process in pupil tutor groups where discussion about options will start. We also have a whole year presentation where we advise them as a year group and they will have informal discussions with subject teachers and parents. The whole process takes well over a term, starting before Christmas and asking them for their final choices before Easter.'
Mr Healy takes this child-centric approach one step further by not locking down the teaching timetable until he has a good idea of what pupils are choosing. He explains: 'We focus totally on the child so we don't set up subject blocks until we get a good feeling of the views of the pupils and parents at this preliminary stage. For example if geography is a particularly popular choice one year we will put in an extra slot of geography so we might have three classes of geography instead of two which is our norm.
'Of course, different year groups have different strengths and weaknesses so we may have a particularly creative year group interested in art, drama and music. We would then have to advise them on that.'
Both agreed it was the right decision to scrap the modular exam system. Dr Murphy said: 'Broadly speaking as an educationalist, it's good that modular exams are being scrapped. There's no question about the fact that for the student who is less able or not quite academic or has difficulty retaining information they can put something to bed and move on. There are two disadvantages: one is that it undermines the synoptic, complete understanding of the subject. The other one, a practical one, is if they face too many modular exams you can get to a situation where they are never more than two or three weeks away from an exam. They are in permanent pre-exam mode which is educationally not great. It's also a little bit exhausting. '
Mr Healy agrees. He said: 'The advantage of modular exams is that it allows students to remember small chunks of information. Students learn a small amount, are examined on it and then they move onto the next one. The disadvantage is that there is little synoptic understanding because you're doing it in discrete bits.
'There are too many exams across the two years and that interferes with the teaching and learning in the wider contexts. If I am teaching maths, I am unlikely to give homework if there is a geography exam the next day.'
Some say final exams put pupils under too much pressure. Mr Healy says this can be a good thing: 'Being tested under pressure is more reflective of life - while not very pleasant for a child, it shows that there will be pressurised times in your life.'
One advantage of the modular exams is that it benefited those less academically inclined so how are the schools planning to support this group of students once the new system beds in?
Mr Healy believes Bethany's pupil-focused approach helps. 'The less academically inclined are supported in class through our differentiated teaching and by teachers meeting pupils out of class on demand.
'The expectation of pupils and teachers is that if a child needs help then they get it. Our teaching style is appropriate to the learning style of the pupils rather than the other way around. If the pupil is not learning properly then the teacher is not teaching properly.'
At Woldingham, Dr Murphy leaves nothing to chance. He said: 'In a good school like ours, we're taking students who are getting Ds and pulling them up to a B grade. I like to think we're pulling up the B students to an A grade. We have clinics, extra tutorials and seminars particularly as you get nearer to exam time. It's creating an atmosphere of aspiration and that comes out from academic clubs, stimulating activities, lectures and debates.'
What is sure is that all schools want students to achieve so follow Dr Murphy and Mr Healy's top tips here and you can't go wrong!
Dr Julian Murphy, Director of Studies, Woldingham School
• Try not to feel overwhelmed by the volume of information so view revision as a constant process;
• Take good but brief notes that suit your personal learning style;
• Try to be actively involved in every lesson - this means you are automatically absorbing more of the course.
Mr Francie Healy, Headmaster, Bethany School
• Stay organised and follow our instructions. No preparation is required over the summer other than to get rest;
• Try to avoid falling behind;
• Ensure you understand what you are learning in class and note this down in an appropriate form. By the time we come to revision it is just that - revision, they are not learning new things.