Anyone who knows me will tell you that I think access to education is incredibly important. When I was an undergraduate, I spent hours talking to prospective students about applying to higher education, giving tours of my college and the wider university, and trekking across the country to deliver presentations to pupils in years 10 -13 in the hope that it would encourage them to apply to university. I think that every student deserves the chance to reach their potential, and that it’s our responsibility to make sure that they’ve got everything they need to excel.
With this in mind, I was thrilled when Y Pant School invited me to talk to a group of Year 10s about revision tactics, managing stress, and life at Oxford University. I was the first on the bill for their Wellbeing Day: a day dedicated to preparing students for the pressures of year 11, during which they’ll sit as many as 25 GCSE exams.
It was inspiring and incredibly encouraging to see a school dedicating a whole day to mental health and the importance of self-care. I crammed 24 exams into three weeks when I was in year 11, and I wish that there had been one of these days when I was a pupil! There’s an awful lot more to be done in terms of mental health education and provision in schools, but this day seemed like a pretty solid start. The year 10s I talked to were treated to tea and biscuits, and spent their day attending various talks and workshops promoting wellbeing and resilience.
I thought long and hard about what to say to such a sparky bunch of teenagers. I’d been asked to talk about how I went about revising for my exams, how I coped with the pressures of being a clever kid working their socks off, and my adventures since leaving school: studying at Oxford, working in Vienna, learning Spanish in Seville and building a career as a freelance writer. It’s both an honour and a huge responsibility to give advice, and I wanted to make sure that everything I said was constructive. It’s surprising and vaguely terrifying to realise that you’re a Real Adult with useful things to say to ambitious students!
So I told them all about how I hate revision schedules, and how writing things down helps me to remember them. I reminded them that it’s important to eat healthy food, and that it’s not good to stay sitting at your desk all day long. I reassured them that they shouldn’t worry if their friends are structuring their time differently, or if there’s the odd day where they don’t do any revision at all. But really, this was all just a preamble to the one thing I desperately wanted to tell them:
You are so much more than the grades on a piece of paper. You all have talents, you’re all kind and funny, you’re all someone’s friend, and you’re all going to do incredible things. Sure, these exams are quite important; but at the end of the day, you can just do them all again if they go wrong. And beyond that, they’re not going to change the fact that you are brilliant, interesting, lovely human beings. You can only do your best, and your best is enough. Don’t forget that.
We define ourselves by so many things: the grades we achieve, the jobs that we do, the money we earn. Sometimes, we could all use reminding that all of these things are just little parts of an incredible whole.
With thanks to Y Pant School.