I have always found that GCSE results day consists of a multitude of emotions. There are hopeful parents, nervous teenagers and equally nervous teachers. This year was no exception.
My school caters for students with communication and interaction (C & I) difficulties. To say that the students at my school are fantastic would be an understatement. The kindness, humour, hardworking nature and other traits really set our students apart. Quite often the students at our school have had difficult periods in their education before joining us. When visiting my previous school I spoke briefly with a former colleague;
“It must be wonderful to not have to worry about exam results”
To which I replied
“I imagine it would be!”
I doubt the person remembers the conversation we had but for me it really stuck in my mind. I’ve recently come across quite a few people, either education professionals or even a parent, who has low expectations of the children I teach. In my eyes this makes the progress and resilience of the pupils that much more impressive. For some of our students, achieving a pass grade in their GCSE core science represents a considerable achievement.
Over the past two years one of our school’s main aims is to increase the number of students accessing level 2 qualifications. This year’s results day was an overwhelming occasion. I lost count of the number of parents and guardians that were ecstatic about their children’s achievements and one described in detail that at primary school their child was told they probably wouldn’t be able to achieve a GCSE.
One of the parents I spoke to simply outlined that they have had to fight for absolutely everything for their child over the previous sixteen years. They explained that they had felt extremely anxious and powerless knowing that their daughter would be sitting a GCSE without their mum there to help along the way. Not only had her daughter passed her GCSE but she had done so independently, this alone meant a great deal to this lady.
Another parent stated that science always involved a lot of application questions. Their child can name the elements and symbols of the periodic table off by heart but when asked to discuss the pros and cons of limestone quarrying they simply freeze. A large proportion of our time is spent preparing for and completing coursework. I have mixed views about coursework. Some of our students benefit enormously from completing it whilst others find it very difficult. The notion of an evaluation is often very challenging for some of our students, for example when asked whether the experiment conducted was fair I’m often met with blank expressions before a pupil will reply “Of course it was fair, everyone joined in!”.
On the radio recently they were discussing exam results and the trend in the national data. A caller had described how “exam results didn’t really matter beyond the age of 18” and that instead the “young people of today should get out and graft.” Of course I argue that sometimes an exam grade, no matter what the letter or number (perhaps that’s a topic for a different blog?!) is evidence a young person has achieved. Perhaps that exam grade is a metaphorical ‘two-fingers- up salute’ to the world and society that previously expected so little of them.
Over the coming years we face new challenges with the introduction of GCSE combined science. It remains to be seen if the skills we have worked tirelessly to develop will be used to the same degree in the new qualification. It will be interesting to see how our students manage the change from a single to double GCSE. There will be challenges ahead but remember one thing, discount somebody at your peril; it just makes them fight that bit harder.
James Lawton is a science teacher at an SEN school in Southeast England.