There are two Thursdays every August that I get this terrible knot in my stomach and I am overwhelmed with a feeling of anxiety. You guessed it – they are the two Thursdays that students, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, get their national exam results, GCSEs and A Levels. Now you may think it goes back to my own youth but I can categorically tell you that it does not.
My own inauspicious exam results were received by post with little fanfare or even interest, which was similar to the emotions surrounding the time of my examinations two months earlier. I can’t even remember my parents asking what results I got and I certainly cannot now remember what they were some 44 years later. In those days they were called ‘O’ Levels or ordinary levels with the ‘A’ Levels being advanced levels. I think there was an option for not so bright youngsters to take CSEs – not to be confused with the modern day GCSE.
Maybe it was me but I do not remember any stress or pressure around the time of taking the exams and even less around the opening of the envelope. I remember lining up, alphabetically, in our school ambulacrum – a long, highly polished, entrance hall, just outside the headmistress’s office. One morning I wished Jan Emery, who was in front of me in the line, good luck in our French exam, she replied, “I think it is English this morning”. Then when we opened our papers we realised it was History and we both got the giggles and were nearly disqualified by the adjudicator. Did we revise? I guess we did but in reality I doubt we did very much. I remember revising for my ‘A’ levels as it was the summer of 1976 and I think we did a lot of outdoor revising whilst working on our suntan!
My ‘A’ level results were received with even less enthusiasm as I had decided to go into the fashion industry and this was regarded as ‘going into trade’ by my school superiors. I got a fantastic grade for my Maths ‘A’ level and my Maths teacher added a note saying she was sure this mark was a mistake. Nothing like raining on my parade!
No the reason that I greet these two Thursdays with toe curling nerves is that I remember the eight Thursdays in August when my four children received their results. Historically it has been a day of great highs and, in equal quantities, not so great lows. My eldest languished in a bath when he should have been phoning his housemaster to receive his results. Having done no work his results were shockingly brilliant. Needless to say he continued to do no work, as this method had been so successful with his ‘O’ levels, and his ‘A’ level results sadly reflected this lack of work. He has gone on to do brilliantly in his career and is the most hard-working and dedicated of young men.
Next up was a daughter who loathed exams and long before she took any both she and her teachers had written her off. She succeeded where her school thought she wouldn’t but nothing that carved an automatic career path. Then came the bright daughter who did not know what fail was and her results reflected this. Finally the youngest, who having embraced academia has, with fierce determination, shown that if you work hard you will achieve. Perhaps that is where his mother went wrong with her own exams! His father, my husband, has just told me that he failed to turn up on the right day for most of his exams. What a mixed bag we are but we have all come out the other end and are working hard – isn’t that what it’s all about? A job, a career, earning a living, being happy in what you do?
Nowadays the exam wheel comes with huge press coverage. As modern day students approach their exams there are endless articles in the press giving advice on how best to revise and how best to handle a revising teenager. In my opinion the latter can be answered with three words, ‘handle with care’. Perhaps add the word ‘great’ to that. The emotion and stress is felt throughout the household during exam time.
Then on the allotted results Thursday the press turn up at various schools to photograph, carefully selected, students opening their results. No longer A* but grade 9s are greeted with huge whoops of joy. The new system is very strange as it seems to run in reverse. Surely grade 1 should be the top grade? Anyway the DoE consistently reports that results are at an all-time high. Girls are pitted against boys and for the past two years boys have been top of the pile. All talk is of the ones at the top with their incredible results.
I understand that this new system allows little opportunity to fail. The Telegraph reported that “apparently it was possible to get a pass in chemistry answering fewer that 10% if the questions. The University of Sheffield back in 2010 found that 22% of 16-19 year olds were functionally innumerate and 17% were illiterate.” Is anyone helping those that are failing? The ones whose parents show no interest in their results, for different reasons than my own parents display of indifference, but because they knew their children would fail. What happens to them? Are their teachers on standby to help advise on the next step in these children’s lives or are they just allowed to drift away whilst photographs are taken and hugs given to the successful ones. I am no educational expert but I am sure many youngsters fade away, forgotten and with an overwhelming feeling of failure.
I have a friend who is an English teacher in a Norfolk state school and public exam result day is as worrying to her as it is to her students. She cares for her students and, whilst their results are a reflection on her teaching, she also appreciates that no matter how good a teacher she is there are some students that do not suit this form of assessment. The top students will need some help carving their way in this world in order to fulfil their potential but it is the bottom of the pile students that need just as much if not more help. Crime in our capital cities is at an all time high – you don’t need good exam grades to choose this career option! There are various ethnic groups that do not feel the system serves them and they are probably right.
Whilst I listened to the radio pondering this issue I heard an interview with a Venezuelan woman who is a teacher. She was attempting to leave her country of birth to go to Colombia with her young child. This lady cannot remain in Venezuela as the current financial situation means she cannot buy food for her child. She was walking the hundreds of miles with her daughter in the hope that she can get a job when she finally makes it to Colombia.
Venezuela is the great socialist experiment which is failing at a catastrophic rate. 2.3 million of the country’s 32 million have fled. If this exodus carries on much longer it could challenge the 4.9 million refugees who have fled Syria since the civil war began in 2011. Nine in ten Venezuelans cannot afford to eat so malnutrition is rife.
If Venezuela is losing so many people including its teachers, similar to the lady I heard interviewed, then it will take many years to rebuild this country. Education is so important for any society. After a stable family life, education is the next stage of the building blocks needed to help young people get on in this increasingly difficult world. Let us celebrate the teachers that our children were lucky enough to have had. Teaching is a vocation. It can be rewarding but more often it is a very frustrating job. With all the cuts that schools are experiencing it will only mean that the bottom 20% will fall even further.
My children may be out of the school system but I still care about our educational system as one day our grandchildren will sign up for it and their future will depend so much on their teachers. The decisions that the interim governments make regarding education will have such an effect on their futures.
Exam results may be important to those that are academically bright but to those that cannot achieve the top grades we need to think of another form of assessment to help them get a job, to make them feel that they have something to offer this world. Finally whilst the press are creating all this hyperbole about exam results spare a thought for the children all over the world who cannot take an exam let alone pass one.
You can read more from Poppy here