A Level Results day: alternative perspectives

I remember vividly a wordless, interminable car journey through France about twenty years ago with my tense-jawed parents and restless brother. At the end of it waited a little brown envelope containing his A level results

A similar envelope will await thousands of young people on 13th August, the contents of which will be the source of wild speculation, gnawing anxiety, sleepless nights and vivid dreams for thousands over the coming days. Students, their loved-ones and their teachers will play out numerous possible scenarios before, finally, the three or four letters in the little envelope will decide the future.

Like it or not, grades are the most commonly accepted measures of students’ efforts and teachers’ methods. And in many ways, rightly so. Rigorous testing methods to measure student performance are necessary. As teachers, we are and should be accountable for preparing our students in the best possible way for adult life. Hard work and excellence on the part of students should be rewarded and universities and employers are in need of measures to indicate young people’s abilities and potential.

So the jubilation many will feel, and the pride of their families at the knowledge that their efforts have been rewarded by top grades is thoroughly justified. And for those who’ve worked less hard or struggled with self-discipline and time-management, lower than obtainable grades may well be an equally fair reflection of the previous two years’ work.

There will also be anomalies and surprises. Students who excel in ways their teachers might not have predicted, and those who, through a missed question or a topic left unrevised, find themselves with lower grades than expected. There will also be those who’ve suffered personal tragedies or physical or mental health challenges through the two years which may affect the outcomes.

Teachers' anxieties are exacerbated by the possibility of volatile grades, moving grade boundaries and rogue marking and the implications of the wholesale changes to our examining systems.

Some students will take their envelope to a quiet corner, some will get it open as quickly as possible, others will wait until safely with parents around the kitchen table. Whether hoping for a university place, a first job or a gap year, the grades in the envelope will play a crucial role in opening doors and realising possibilities.

Because, of course attached to each pair of sweaty, shaking hands opening the envelopes next week will be an infinite variety of individual aspirations and anxieties. And sometimes, amidst the crunching of data and the analysis of percentiles, we are in danger of forgetting this. Exam results reflect on us as a country, on individual institutions and on teacher career trajectories, so the data is important. But not as important as the individuals behind it.

Amidst the annual media clamour over ‘dumbing down’ and in the context of volatile and unpredictable results year on year, it’s easy for the media and public voices to forget these individuals. The ones who stayed up revising until 3 a.m, who learned to recite whole sections of Chaucer and John Donne, who drafted and redrafted essay after essay, who learned to conjugate the subjunctive mood and to critically analyse the influence of postmodernism on theatre… The ones who lost a parent unexpectedly or split up with the boy they thought they would marry or succumbed to anorexia or made bad choices…

Gove told us ‘average’ schools and ‘average’ results would not be tolerated. All students and all schools must strive for excellence. Even those of us with the most basic grasp of maths see the fundamental issue with this. And the word ‘average’ when applied to any human being is, frankly, offensive. Through twenty years of teaching, I’ve learned that every student who walks through the door of my classroom is entirely unique in their fears, strengths, foibles and aspirations.

We teach to help young people prepare successfully for adulthood, and this means preparing for setbacks and challenges as well as success and celebration.  More than academic success, surely it is a greater priority to to help them develop resilience, integrity, humility, kindness and strength of character; to show them how to build solid and lasting relationships and to persevere through setbacks.

One of the best things about having been a teacher for nearly two decades has been following the progress of former students into adulthood. As confidently as I can assert the importance of A Level results, I can also testify that success and happiness come in many different forms, and that the correlation of these to exam results is far from fixed. I know students who left school after Year 11 who have gone on to make successful careers for themselves and those with first class degrees who’ve struggled to find their place in society. I know those who sailed through GCSEs but struggled hugely with the demands of A Levels and those who managed fine at A Level but struggled at university.

I’ve also noticed that most students experience a ‘blip’ at some point; a period of rebellion and anger and uncertainty. As teachers, we recognise this most frequently in our stroppy-yet-oddly-loyal-and-possessive Year 9s, but for others, it happens later – during the exam years or even into the first years of university. I’ve come to see this ‘blip’ as an important and ultimately positive phase in the transition to adulthood. A period in which young people test boundaries to know they’re loved, to work out their values and what they stand for and what matters to them. And for those for whom this period occurred during Year 12 or 13, this may well reflect on their results.

I’d like to say that all those former students whose fates I’ve followed have had happy endings, but sadly bad choices and fate have meant that some of them haven’t. But most have.  And the source of a happy, stable adulthood? Not necessarily academic success, but a firm sense of self, a willingness to work hard and the ability to reflect, review and act wisely.

Whilst I applaud the attempts to close the gap between our privileged young people and those with fewer advantages, and to open up doors to those with lower aspirations, I have also noted with pride that young people have a remarkable capacity to make their own choices based on what’s right for them.

Only last year, I lobbied for my neighbour to take up the university place she’d earned – the first in her family to do so. She decided university wasn’t what she wanted and is now flourishing at an accountancy firm whilst studying for new qualifications sponsored by her employers. Similarly, there has recently been a battlecry against the Gap Year, but if a young person has the desire and the capacity to work, to travel and to make a contribution whilst they consider their options, then who are we to denounce this?

 

About Emma Kell 

Currently studying in third year of a Doctorate in Education at Middlesex University. Thesis entitled: "Shifting Identities: A Mixed-Methods study of the experiences of teachers who are also parents in the UK". She is a practising teacher, middle/senior leader​ and mother to two girls, aged 4 and 6. Married to an equally busy journalist! You can follow her on Twitter @thosethatcan or read her blog.