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'Anthony got two Fs in his GCSEs: that may not seem earth-shattering to you, but to him - and to me - that represents a triumph'

We need to celebrate progress, not just the higher grades, says this special school headteacher

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We need to celebrate progress, not just the higher grades, says this special school headteacher

Media coverage of GCSE results day is as predictable as the performance of the England football team in a major tournament. Hugs, relief, choreographed lines of students jumping in the air clutching a sheaf of papers. Out of sight, the headteacher’s blood pressure drops from "life threatening" to merely "extremely high" as they gear themselves up to ride the rollercoaster for another year. 

It’s great to see an interview with a student who achieved a string of A*s, but I’m always left thinking about the students whose results may not sound much to write home about, but will be life-changing. Students in PRUs or special schools, for example, who have defied the odds and who should be headline news.

Take Anthony*. Anthony joined us from a mainstream secondary school in Year 8. At that time, he felt that school was an unsafe place to be. He had convinced himself that adults were not to be trusted and that they would all give up on him eventually. Best to get the first punch in, metaphorically speaking, and quit on his own terms. 

He tried to quit many times, but we made a collective commitment, as a school, to stick with it. We knew what the alternative for him was – he’d run out of road if we didn’t make it work. 

Challenging journey

The first few weeks were dominated by long periods of Anthony standing in the middle of the playground in tears. 

“I don’t belong in this school with these Downies. I’m normal!” he would sob. [Our school is for children with varying special needs and disabilities, and his language at the time was a reflection on the stigma that can exist when it comes to special schools. His attitude and language subsequently changed as he became part of the community.] 

At other times he was angry. He had no emotional investment in the school and it showed. 

It’s at times like these that we know that we have to make the initial outlay, continue to invest and then the dividend comes later. And so it proved with Anthony.

I remember doing a home visit following a period of six weeks' absence for Anthony. I was greeted by him in a Tigger onesie – he was feeding his chinchillas. He was in his element: he didn’t need school, he’d be a chippy with his uncle. 

We got him back in to school, but it took a good couple of years for Anthony to feel safe with us.

I had a conversation with Anthony in the summer term that will never leave me. 

“I wish I hadn’t been such a dick when I first started here, sir” was his honest appraisal of his time with us.

Fast forward to today. GCSE science: grade F. GCSE maths: grade F. That may not seem earth-shattering to you but to me, that represents a triumph. No-one would have predicted that four years ago. 

Despite his literacy difficulties, which are enormous, Anthony stuck with it, despite wanting to quit a million times. Significant and lasting behaviour change takes a long time. 

Celebrating progress

This is why it’s important. Maybe the student with 12 A*s was always going to do well – don’t misunderstand me, I’m not dismissing their achievements – but the implications for students like Anthony are bigger. Students in special schools are walking a thin line. 

On one side is a life of independent living and paid employment. Other things flow from that – better physical and mental health (factoring out medical conditions, they still die 15 years earlier than the rest of us, for goodness sake), less poverty (itself linked with learning difficulties in their own children), less chance of ending up in the criminal justice system. The list goes on. If that doesn’t sway you, think of the cost of all of that to the taxpayer for 50 years plus.

On the other side is a life of supported living and benefits. The life outcomes on this side of the line are poor. It gives the work of schools like mine a sharp focus. We’re doing everything we can to make sure all of our students are on the right side of the line. 

Anthony, with the help and commitment of my brilliant colleagues and his mum, has literally changed his life. Let’s hear more about students like him next year.

Jarlath O’Brien is Headteacher of Carwarden House Community School. His book Don’t Send Him in Tomorrow is published by Independent Thinking Press.  

*Name changed to preserve anonymity

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