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'Exam results can never tell the full story'

With GCSE and A-level results looming, Natasha Devon reflects on how schools and pupils cannot be judged on grades alone

Exam results

With GCSE and A-level results looming, Natasha Devon reflects on how schools and pupils cannot be judged on grades alone

Results day is almost upon us, inevitably bringing with it some traditional seasonal happenings including, but not limited to:

  • Red-top newspapers printing pictures of stereotypically attractive teenage girls midway through "jumping for joy", such is their pride in their achievements;
  • A teeth-gnashingly pompous opinion piece in one or more right-wing publications stating, with apparently no effort having been made to investigate their contents, that exams are so much easier than when the writer went to school and kids today don’t know they’re born;
  • Some poor, unsuspecting young person being forced to reveal their results in real-time, in the presence of a gurning reporter on breakfast television;
  • A celebrity tweeting, "I left school will no qualifications and LOOK AT ME NOW";
  • An MP telling off the aforementioned celebrity for "devaluing the hard work of pupils and teachers alike".

While moderately entertaining, this media soap-opera fails to truly capture the mood of results day or the way that pupils and their teachers really feel about it. It’s idiotic to deny that results are quite important (unless you happen to benefit from a rare marriage of circumstances which will render you motivated by failure and in receipt of a hefty dollop of good fortune in the style of, say, Russell Brand). It’s equally ludicrous to suggest that exam results can accurately and comprehensively reflect the intelligence of an individual, or the quality of the education they have received.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said during a panel discussion at the Bryanston Education Summit in June that it has been "30 years of Ofsted, and all their assessments have been able to tell us is whether the school in question contains working-class or middle-class children". Exam results are all too similar. All teachers work hard but it is, almost without exception, easier to teach a child who has been given the sort of head start that coming from an affluent family buys you. The idea that how "good" a school is can be defined by where it appears in a league table is, therefore, palpably absurd – yet this continues to be one of a very few fairly arbitrary measures by which schools are assessed.

More importantly, however, results don’t tell you anything about all those little moments that leave an indelible mark on pupils intellectually and emotionally. They simply can’t quantify what has been "learned".

Truly inspirational teachers

I am one of those fairly unusual people who was great at exams. This was, I have since concluded, for two primary reasons. The first is that I have a really good memory for facts. It’s somewhat ironic that I was predicted As across the board apart from in my very favourite subject, English, because I had a tendency to "go off on tangents". My enthusiasm for the subject was such that I wouldn’t adhere strictly to what the examiner was looking for and I "used too many descriptive words". Exams don’t care how creatively you express an idea, just that the content is correct. Thus, I aced maths and science despite, at the time, having little interest in them.

I have only ever failed two exams – one of which was my first driving test. The other was my English S level (a qualification somewhere between A level and degree offered as a bonus to some of us during sixth form). I had mistakenly written down the time of the exam as afternoon when it was, in fact, in the morning. I was having a lie-in when my teacher called to ask why I hadn’t turned up. I still remember the journey to my school, my Mum driving on one wheel while force-feeding me strawberries from a Tupperware container (because "you can’t think on an empty stomach").

I arrived about 40 minutes late, unwashed, sweaty and dishevelled. I didn’t read the instructions properly and answered only two essay questions, rather than the specified three.

I still remember the look of disappointment on my S-level teacher Dr Cochran’s face when I broke the news to him that I had failed. If I had had the insight, I would have told him this:

"Dr Cochran, though I have failed this exam, my time with you has not been a failure.

"You are the reason I love Shakespeare. Actually, scrap that. You are the reason I understand Shakespeare at all. It all looked very much like gibberish before I was in one of your productions, in Year 9. I will never forget you reading Chaucer to us in what you claim would have been his accent, a peculiar mixture of Welsh and Scottish. It is one of the best things I’ve ever heard. You are also the reason I no longer think the romantic poets are 'a bunch of boring, overprivileged, petulant dickheads' and will go on to write my dissertation on them at university.

'More than that, however, an off-the-cuff comment you made about a character in the Merchant of Venice being bisexual allowed me not to be ashamed of my sexuality. You taught me what ‘tautologous’ means and why swearing within the context of a masterfully constructed sentence is a powerful and beautiful thing. The one time you told me off about something terrified me so much I couldn’t sleep and 20 years later, I’ll still want to kick something whenever I think about how I disrespected you.

"Furthermore, your eyebrows are the stuff of legends."

In the coming weeks, we won’t hear about all the teachers who inspired, helped, entertained, comforted, understood or went above and beyond for the young people in their care. A grade can’t tell that story.

Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here

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