Keeping students engaged and motivated (without exams)

Adele Bates shares some practical ideas on how to support Year 11s without adding to the inflated workload of ‘evidence exams’.

Author details

Adele Bates is a teacher, speaker, writer and educator for students with emotional and behavioural difficulties. She is a TEDx Speaker 2020 and forthcoming author of Miss, I don’t give a sh*t with Sage publishing. With over 17 years’...

It’s not easy. In my work supporting pupils and staff in Year 11 at the moment, it’s clear that there are challenges.

Is this year group (another) cause lost to the pandemic? Is there anything we can do?

When are Year 11s leaving?

I did an unscientific poll on Twitter asking if schools’ Year 11s are getting study leave. Around three-quarters are still getting some form of study leave, but the other quarter is not.

So already things are upside down. Year 11s leaving early is usually a joyous time – for them, the f.r.e.e.d.o.m. and, for staff, very useful logistical ease, as staff are reallocated to catch up on tasks and prepare for September.

Of the majority of schools who are still granting study leave, there was a wide range of dates as to when that’ll happen and how… which, of course, adds that additional fun of the school down the road doing different things to yours, or your own child’s school differing from the one you teach in.

Dealing with the pressure

There is (another) hefty guide from the Department of Education outlining the guidelines on how to ‘award qualifications’, created from a two-week consultation with Ofqual.

The huge irony of emphasis on teacher judgement is not lost on those of us who have been requesting the return of coursework components in the GCSE syllabus since Gove’s alterations in 2014.

Now we seem to have that, only that (be careful what you wish for!) and, of course, due to the bizarre circumstances, no structures, schedules or extra time or payment for the hefty task that is involved.

And alongside all these stresses we have – well, the pupils.

One SLT described it to me as very ‘pressure cookery’.

‘There is an almost tangible irritation and anxiety in the air. Ever been in a pub and known it’s going to kick off before it does? Like that, but constant.

So what can we do?

Of course, everything is affecting Year 11 (and all of our) pupils at the moment. There are some practical things we can do to support them (and keep ourselves sane) for the last part of this crazy year.

1. Be honest

Pretending that everything is ‘normal’ or that ‘it was always supposed to be like this’ rarely works as a long-term strategy. Pupils can see through inauthenticity a mile off (and if you work with SEMH pupils or in alternative provision they may well tell you in four letter words where to go, too).

In addition, it’s exhausting. Teachers have enough on their plates without pretending in every lesson too.

Some things are out of our control. We’re doing the best we can.

There is no shame in sharing that with our pupils. In fact, it gives them permission as well to know that things might still be difficult for them even though they’re doing their best.

As my recent article, Pandemic Permissions, highlighted, one thing we have gained from the last year is an increased vocabulary around mental health challenges, and more open ways to communicate about them. See below for resources.

2. Accept behaviour may be different – expectations depend on context

Acceptance is the ‘A’ in Dan Hughes’ PACE framework (see resources below), used to connect with and engage pupils who have experienced trauma and adverse childhood experiences.

There are various debates about whether living through a global pandemic is classed as trauma – maybe classification comes later – but for many pupils it most definitely will have been traumatic when we consider the the increase in bereavements, isolation, mental health issues and domestic abuse.

So I advocate we start using Dan’s strategy now. This means:

  • Acceptance that our pupils’ behaviour may be different to usual – in fact, wouldn’t it be weird if it wasn’t?
  • Acceptance that some standards and expectations may be different.
  • Acceptance that motivation is most likely to be lower.
  • Acceptance that we are dealing with the behaviour that is arising now and using our tools to support behave now.

3. Look for things that you can control – find the positives

As I talk about in my forthcoming book, 'Miss, I don’t give a sh*t': Engaging with Challenging Behaviour in Schools, what we appreciate, appreciates.

So Fred hasn’t prepared for his Double Science Award in the way that he may have, and pulling ‘evidence’ out of him is like pulling teeth… but he did set up a wacky experiment with Georgina that kept them enthralled for a whole double period.

In those moments, they loved your subject; they learnt and experimented and wanted to know more. Usually, at this end of Year 11, there’s not time for those types of activities.

Where are the achievements and positive experiences that are happening in your classrooms now? How can you focus on them – both for yourself (to help your own perspective) and for the pupils?

How can you help them see that within this awkward-lack-of-real-Year-11 space that there are opportunities to enjoy other things?

3. Student voice

If behaviour and focus are really iffy and, no matter what you try, you feel all you’re doing is counting the days, one useful and courageous strategy is to ask the pupils what they want. It may sound counterintuitive but I have done it on many occasions with fantastic results.

Because the pupils know things that you don’t.

Circle time is a useful tool for setting this up – and yes I do mean with Year 11s! I usually use a cuddly toy to pass around as the ‘talking stick’. I believe it works because this type of approach can be reminiscent of primary school, it makes a lot of them feel safer.

There may be other survey/questionnaire strategies that you can try.

  • Be honest – ‘Things aren’t how we usually like them. We have six more weeks together, that’s 18 hours. We have a choice. Do we want to keep fighting each other? Me giving out loads of behaviour points and detentions? Or can we do this another way?’
  • Ask questions – 'What do you think is happening? Why is behaviour getting so fraught for you? Is there something that would make it easier? How could I help you engage for this last tiny bit?’
  • Listen – This can be tricky, but try to listen without judgement. Whilst they suggest 18 hours of computer gaming and sports days, see if there’s an element in there that you could incorporate.
  • Adapt – Once a week, introduce a chess tournament or more student-led teaching (that might leave you free to be collecting your evidence). Take the ideas on board – they might just plan the rest of your term in a way that the pupils will be able to engage with.

3. Do mocks to prep for later studies

So the pupils won’t have sat ‘real’ exams as normal. However, this is a skill they may need in the future – for driving theory tests, citizenship tests, further education – so it is a skill worth teaching.

I suggest that some form of mocks is still encouraged if there is time. A useful way into this may be through free writing. See the resources list for information on how to do this.

4. Remember the Big Behaviour Rule

I rarely advocate solid rules when it comes to behaviour but in all the training, support, consulting and mentoring I do, I always bring staff back to the Big Behaviour Rule:

Any advice you receive from any well-meaning teacher, headteacher, specialist (including me!), politician or Twitter feed, you can override if it does not work for your pupil(s) in the time and place they are now.


Last Updated: 
18 May 2021