3 Hard Truths About What It Takes to Succeed at GCSE and A-Level

It's not easy to succeed at GCSE and A-Level. I think we all know this intellectually, but many people seem to resist the reality of what it really takes.

In this article, I'm going to share three hard truths about what it really takes to succeed at GCSE and A-Level. It's up to you whether you fully take them on board.

If you'd prefer to listen to the podcast version of this article, please click play on the podcast player above, or listen to it on Apple podcasts or search for The School Success Formula in your podcast player of choice.

Truth #1: You have to study A LOT

In the past few days, I've seen a couple of examples of people complaining about the amount of work that goes into doing well in GCSEs and A-Levels.

One was the mother of a year 11 student who was pointing out that her son had mocks in November, then in March and was now taking his final assessments in May. I pointed out to her that this really isn't that different to a normal GCSE year – it's just that this year the final assessments have started earlier and will finish earlier than normal and there's been the uncertainty and unpredictability of the pandemic to deal with. The workload, though, hasn't been that different to normal.

The other was the mum of a year 12 student who said her daughter was literally drowning in homework and didn't have time to revise for her year 12 exams, which were happening in two weeks. I asked her how much homework she was doing each week for each subject – she said 3-4 hours.

The thing is, 3-4 hours per week per subject is in the lower range of what I would recommend a year 12 student does. I'd actually recommend they do 4-6 hours per week per subject.

What's behind this resistance?

I detect beneath these complaints about the amount of work that is required of young people a fundamental mismatch between:

a) what some parents and students think life should look like at this stage of their teenage years

b) what is actually demanded by the education system

I feel that some families value their children having a social life, doing loads of hobbies, learning to drive, having a part-time job etc far more than others. But, the trouble is – if students are going to achieve the higher grades in the new look GCSEs and A-Levels (brought in by Michael Gove as part of the Conservative government's overhaul of education between 2010 and 2017) then having this kind of lifestyle isn't 100% realistic.

Students can have some of those things – but most students can't have all of them.

It's up to families to decide what their priorities are – the rich out of school life, or focusing on meeting their academic potential.

Don't get me wrong, there are ways to have balance in a student's life and look after their mental and physical health as well, and these are things that I work with families on in The Extraordinaries Club. But, if families resist the demands of the system, or try to pull too far their own way, that's when I see students getting overwhelmed by their lives and disappointed with their results.

I don't think this is the way it should be. And, the more and more time I do this job and see the impact of the education system on young people, the more I think it needs to swing back the other way. But, the reality is, if you want your children to reach their potential in the current system, they're going to have to work much harder than many parents think is ideal.

Truth #2: Young people need to take responsibility for their own outcomes

The students who get the best grades are the ones who take full responsibility for their grades. They see their teachers as useful facilitators to be respected and used as a very helpful resource, but they know it's up to them, and them alone to do what it takes to reach their potential.

Don't rely on teachers

Teachers are amazing people. They're not paid masses for how hard they work and the dedication they have to their job. I used to be one and I know many, many incredible teachers who have an amazing impact on their students.

However, not all teachers are like this. And, even the ones who are like this aren't necessarily like this all the time.

Some teachers discover they're in the wrong job. Other's get sick, or have a baby and need time off. Others might get distracted by things in their personal life. Basically, real life happens to teachers too.

All of this means that teachers aren't necessarily on their A-game all of the time.

Be resourceful and responsible

I saw this in my own education. I remember doing the physics segment of my GCSE science, and being taught by a newly qualified biology teacher. She was a brilliant person who formed great relationships with her students – but she couldn't teach physics for toffee.

I did the worst I've ever done in the module test on that particular unit of work and that made me realise that I had to take things into my own hands if I wanted to get an A* in science. I got a book out of the library and taught myself the physics this teacher had failed to teach me. I got my A*s.

Be ready to teach yourself

Time and time again, it's the students who I see taking full responsibility for their own outcomes that do the very best. The ones who are passengers on the train ride of their own education are the ones who don't do as well as they could.

You may be thinking, “But, Lucy, isn't this what teachers are paid to do?”

Yes, they are. But, it doesn't mean you can rely on them. And, in actual fact, even the very best teachers require their students to take an active, as opposed to a passive, part in their education. It's simply what it takes to succeed.

Truth #3: It's a marathon, not a sprint

Over and over again, I see students who've been passively riding the train of their own education (see truth #2 above) get to January of year 11 or year 13 and suddenly realise they've got to get serious.

The trouble is, GCSEs and A-Levels are a marathon, not a sprint.

It's the students who revise from the first week of their courses, diligently making a few flashcards every night after school, searching out exam specifications and examiners reports, getting their heads around mark schemes in year 10 or year 12 and making sure each week's work is secure in their knowledge and understanding before they go on to the next week that go on to succeed.

The students who don't do this arrive in January or February of their exam years like rabbits in the headlights, overwhelmed by the catching up they need to do. This is why year 10 and year 12 exams are so important as opportunities to consolidate learning – because once year 11 and year 13 start it's like students are on an express train with no stops until they reach their final destination.

This is also why I strongly suggest families join The Extraordinaries Club by September of year 11/13 at the very latest (rather than leaving it until January of that school year) – but preferably join in year 10 or year 12. When they do this, I can help them get the right habits and routines in place that mean they can have the best balance possible throughout their exam years (see truth #1 above) and they don't get that sickening sense of overwhelm in the January of year 11/13.

Not what you wanted to hear?

For many, these hard truths are probably not what you wanted to hear. They might not fit with your view of how young people should spend their teenage years.

Remember, I'm the messenger. I didn't create this system, I just know how to get students through it in the best way possible – both in terms of reaching their full academic potential, but also doing it in the most balanced way possible to protect and promote their mental and physical health as they go through.

If you want someone to blame, write to your MP, write to the Education Secretary and use your vote wisely at the ballot box – because the system we have is based on political ideology.

We can help

If these hard truths are a bit of a shock to you, or you know you need help with putting the things I've talked about into action, join The Extraordinaries Club. It's our online hub where we teach GCSE and A-Level students the study skills, habits and mindset to reach their potential and work with their parents so they can support their children in the best way possible.

Click here to find out more about The Extraordinaries Club.

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