Exam results day 2020: when a school’s wellbeing focus will be truly tested

Alan Johnston, senior deputy head at Merchiston Castle School, reflects on the importance of well-being during this year’s exam results period.

WE HAVE all found ourselves thrown into a closer relationship with digital technology than we would have envisaged just a few short – although it seems long – months ago. The benefits have been clear, with online teaching, video-conference house meetings, social activities and quizzes, end of term services and more.

However, these have brought challenges and who would have thought that online learning could be so intense and exhausting for both pupils and staff? Also for parents, I hasten to add.

In all of the hard work to shift immediately to online learning, to support examination candidates who felt deeply worried about how the system would work and reassure staff, it quickly became apparent that our focus on wellbeing was of even greater importance.

So, what about looking after those pupils in the public examination year groups? With the sudden loss of opportunity to demonstrate improvements made in the months leading to public exams, there was an even greater focus on supporting pupil wellbeing.

Their initial excitement about not sitting exams was quickly replaced with even greater anxiety than the traditional sitting of exams creates. So many questions and so many unknowns for all.

This has been a time for us to ensure that our communication has been clear, reassuring, honest and based on the strong trust and support built with our pupils and parents. If we had failed to build these trusting relationships from the beginning, we would have struggled to offer the support needed at this time.

The strength of a school environment in which the foundation of every activity is built on wellbeing considerations has borne fruit in these months of hardship and stress for so many. Because young people and staff at Merchiston are used to talking about their wellbeing, they reacted openly and honestly to our questions about how they are feeling about the new approaches that we have all had to put in place, and then amend.

The willingness to listen and change shows that we care and trust the input of our pupils and means that more effective solutions can be put in place. There is nothing worse than someone thinking they know how to deal with a completely unknown challenge.

So how can we support our pupils on a virtual exam results day? Again, the answer seems simple; clear planning, sound communication, a strong rationale for how you will be in contact with every individual and offer them access to staff who will guide them through the good news or the less good news and make sure they know you still care.

Yes, it is as simple as continuing your caring support. Of course, if that foundation is not there, then the pressure on pupils will be even greater.

Read more stories from Scotland’s schools on Scottish Field’s education pages.