Focus on Education May 2022

Trepidation ripples through their uniformed ranks. There’s bravado as they huddle close, attempting to disguise their anxiety. Poorly. The tough guys try to look, well, tough. But inside, jelly. Others are just openly fearful, eyes darting, beads of perspiration. It is the eve of battle and these few, these not-so-happy few, finger their weapons nervously. Yet they are about to spill ink not blood. For they stand, not on the fields of Agincourt, but outside the Big School. And whilst the pen may be mightier than the sword in this arena, the need for self-confidence and mental fortitude remains the same.

Just as Henry V’s army needed inspiration to believe in themselves as they entered the fray, so too do you as you face up to the cut and thrust of your final examinations. So what better encouragement than to offer up the King’s own stirring advice? The galvanizing words of his St Crispin’s Day speech were still ringing in the ears of his troops when Lord Salisbury rode up, all doom and gloom. The enormity of the task that lay before them was daunting. Henry’s reproach? “All things are ready, if our minds be so.”

All things are ready, if our minds be so. As you prepare for your examinations, the enormity of the task and the weight of its implications is not lost on you. Most of you don’t actually need well-intentioned parents and teachers reminding you of the fact every waking moment. What you do need is help to get into the right mental state.

Unfortunately, evolution hasn’t really kept pace since the days of bloody warfare. Hence, the biological responses of a teenager facing the pressure of examinations mirror those of Henry’s soldiers in mortal hand-to-hand combat. As far as I’m aware, no one has ever died from wounds suffered solving a quadratic equation, but try telling that to the nervous system of an A Level candidate. The stress of opening the Question Booklet triggers the same physiological responses as a crazed knight charging at you. Adrenaline and cortisol flood the body’s organs. Heart rate increases, lung capacity contracts. Blood is diverted from non-essential functions like digestion, so appetite reduces. Visual focus narrows, as does the ability of the brain to process peripheral issues.

So how best to arm you as you prepare for these engagements? Revision, certainly. Plenty of practice sparring with prior exam papers. Sleep and a healthy diet before the battle. Dare I suggest less screen-time for a while? All the usual things. But the greatest armour in which we can clad you is a positive mental outlook. Not complacency, not denial. But calm, reasoned, positive affirmation that you are well-prepared and up to the fight. Let resilience be your shield, self-confidence your sword.

And perhaps most importantly, never forget that as the final cry of “Pens Down” echoes across the desks lined row upon row, nobody will actually be mortally wounded. Life will go on.

Stay well and safe.

Be kind to yourself and others.

Good Luck and thank you Year 13 and Year 11 – we are all very proud of you!

Best wishes,

Dr Bird