I didn’t particularly enjoy exams as a participative event during my own schooldays but it turns out that, for me anyway, it has been even more stressful as a spectator sport. On Tuesday, my eldest son will receive his last ever school exam results at the same time as teens across Scotland. This has made me reflect on what I’ve learned and what pearls of wisdom I can pass on to other parents, carers and loving hoverers during this very difficult time for all of us.
1. Be kind and reflect
There are few events in a young person’s life which are as all-consuming and stressful as exams. You’ve survived, they’ve survived, you’ve finished the 2am runs to Asda for Post-it notes, Sharpies, Diet Coke and chocolate for this academic year. But until their results are actually in their hands, our kids are living with low-level stress and anxiety which may ebb and flow or which may be almost omnipresent. Living with a teen is already full of exciting challenges, but I found the period between end of exams and results day to be when I most often empathised with those species which eat their young.
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2. Be prepared for your carefully curated plans to go awry
I had given great thought as to how I would support my kids on exam-results day. My own experience receiving my Standard Grade results wasn’t great, as my exceptionally competitive mother was more focused on her disappointment with my two Grade 2 passes (equivalent to a B) than on my five Grade 1 passes (equivalent to As), so I had 20 years of festering resentment fuelling my own parental ideation.
In Scotland, exam results are posted directly but in recent years a supplementary 8am text message service has been offered. My son, ever railing against the trend, decided he’d prefer to “go retro”. So I mentally planned how we would all sit, supportively, staring at him like the Bucket family stared at Charlie as he opened his chocolate bar to see if he’d secured a golden ticket – or in Findlay’s case, good results.
Alas, I was called up for my first-ever jury duty service the week when results were due to be issued and Findlay ended up opening his results by himself. From a parenting perspective it was suboptimal, particularly because Findlay hadn’t got the results he was hoping for and needed quite a bit of reassurance, but from his perspective he got what he needed – the space he wanted to process his results before he spoke to anyone about it.
3. Exam-results day is the beginning, not the end
Many kids will receive the results they need to turn conditional offers into unconditional for college or university. Well done to them! That security and certainty is exciting and they can relax for a few weeks until the start of term.
Plenty of others will either not get the results they had been hoping for or may not have worked out what they want to be when they grow up. That’s totally fine. Exams don’t measure how good a friend your kid is, how interested they are in their hobby, how hard they practise at sport, how they go and keep Granny company on a Monday, how kind and generous they are. Exams are a snapshot of a moment in time, that’s all.
In recent years, the expansion of apprenticeship pathways, the growth of formal recognition of prior learning and in-work upskilling has meant that post-school opportunities are less of a linear path and more of a lattice. The world of work looks very different for today’s young people compared to ours, and education and training provision is changing to meet that need. Exam results don’t dictate the future, good-quality opportunities are always within the grasp of your child regardless of their school performance. Be excited for them, for what their future holds – not for what that slip of paper tells you.
Having seen one son through school and off to Glasgow Clyde College later this month to study fashion and textiles, I now get a two-year break from the exam cycle. I do wonder whether, had I tried harder at Standard Grade maths, I would have applied my learning to space my children out in a manner which would have avoided six years straight – I’m still in the midst of this – of having at least one, regularly two and occasionally three kids going through exams simultaneously.
What I do know, having worked around post-16 education in the past seven years, is that the possibilities and options available after school now are almost limitless and incredibly exciting. This generation – the first to have been raised as digital natives – are going to do wonderful things in difficult times. Let’s reflect back on their exam results in 10 years.
Vonnie Sandlan is a former NUS Scotland president who worked extensively on widening access and the learner journey during her tenure. She has four children at varying stages of education, and therefore no time for hobbies
*Tes Scotland will be live blogging on exam results day, Tuesday 6 August. See updates on Twitter @TesScotland