Do you remember results day? Most of us have experienced at least one day where our exam scores were made public. The current cohort of Year 11s and Years 13s have also had SATs results at age 7 and 11 and those coming through high school now will have passed or failed a phonics test at age 5. Setting aside the current debate about the merits and injustices of the current system, it’s worth reflecting on how you responded to ‘results day’. What did you feel about yourself? What did you carry with you into the next days, weeks or even years of your life? If you look back now, do you wince, shrug, feel relief or pride? How did your results influence your next steps? Do you define yourself by the grades you received? If you took your exams about 30 years ago and can still reel off the scores, chances are you measure your worth in relation to them in some way. I can and I do!
Scanning social media this morning, the response to this year’s unusual GCSE results is pretty similar to other years: effusive congratulations for the achievements of our successful young people or reassurances to those who fared less well that results don’t really matter at all. This binary has always struck me as disingenuous. Our whole school system is geared towards passing exams; the transition to ‘next stages’ in academic and working life is secured by the collection of a set of minimum grades. It rings hollow to tell a young person that ‘who they are’ is more important than a set of exam results, after they’ve spent at least eleven years in a system that tells them otherwise. If this sounds like ‘snowflakery’, or a ‘all must have prizes’ thinking, it might be worth taking a wider perspective. International comparison shows that it’s perfectly possible to set aside the high stakes examination system that haunts our young people’s adolescence and still have a successful education system.
How a culture measures success can be captured by the question its asks at the end of a period of study. The question we ask is ‘what did you get?’ There are other questions: ‘what did you learn?’, ‘how have you changed?’, ‘what did you enjoy?’ There are so many other questions. On results day, these qualitative questions don’t even hover under the surface of the quantifiable data: as a consequence, it’s the quantifiable data that drives what schools do.
Today, if you’re consoling a disappointed teenager or feeling like you’ve failed, don’t fall into the trap of saying ‘it doesn’t matter.’ It does, because we live in a culture that makes exam grades matter. Allow for and support the sadness and upset. Once the feelings are less raw, and the next phase is underway in some form, don’t just turn away from all that happened before ‘the results’. Now that you know ‘what you got’, make some time to find out who you’re becoming. You just can’t put a number, or a letter, on that.