This is what I imagine it feels like to be sat on a plane that is climbing to the altitude from which you can skydive. We’re about 8,500ft above the ground, which means that we’re close, but we have a few more stomach-churning feet to climb before we take the leap – before we reach GCSE results day.
As we inch upwards, the jump feels both perilously close and painfully far away. I’m looking around the plane and I see, reflected back at me in the ashen faces of other heads of department, that feeling of anticipation that is both excitement and dread. We all just want to get this over with.
Although we are all making this jump together, this is my first jump as a middle leader and I’m having visions of being sucked into the engine. None of us really know what to expect on Thursday 24 August, but there is an added frisson for us new HODs.
Unlike for our more experienced counterparts, this year’s crop of grades is our first. It's a scary addition to the list of firsts that characterises this year: the first cohort assessed entirely through end-of-year exams; the first students through the new GCSE specifications; the first graded 9-1. What timing!
Will students get the results they deserve?
Ultimately, though, I’m not anxious about these results because of how it might reflect on me; that’s not the real reason why so many of us respond emotionally on results day.
I’m worried because I want our students to get the results they deserve and I just don’t know if they will. I’m worried that, even though I know I tried my absolute best, I didn't do enough to ensure that all the students I’m responsible for will get a result they can be proud of. And I’m worried in a way that I haven’t been before because it’s not just my class I care about this year.
In the moments when I’m not imagining that my parachute doesn’t open, I’m taking a deep breath and focusing on what I do know. I know that my team couldn’t have worked harder this year; I couldn’t have asked or expected more from them.
I know that we have learned an awful lot about how best to prepare students for these exams. I also know that, year in and year out, there is so much beyond our control as teachers that perhaps it’s a little bit ridiculous to overstate the part we play.
We have no control over the changing winds of educational policy, the mad gusts of exam questions (which may, for example, incorrectly label a Capulet as a Montague), or the unpredictable storms of grade boundaries, let alone what students actually do once they get into the exam hall.
So, if you’re a new head of department, too, perhaps you’ll join me in trying to gain some perspective about whatever Thursday may bring. It may not be the best jump we’ll ever make but it’s going to tell us an awful lot about what we need to get right next year. Let’s focus on what we know and what we can control. I’ll see you at the bottom. Let’s go.
Rebecca Foster is head of English at St Edmund's Girls' School in Salisbury. She tweets @TLPMsF
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