'Exams? I take more pride in everyday achievements'

Exam results day is an important part of our cycle - but there's a lot more to school than grades, says head Billy Burke

There's far more to school than exam results, says head Billy Burke

No two days are ever the same in a school, which makes the job of headteacher always interesting and rewarding. However, the years do have a certain cyclical flow to them – and as July turns to August, no doubt the thoughts of many pupils, parents and teachers have been turning to the forthcoming release of the 2019 SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority) results on Tuesday.

This is always an exciting and nervous time for all involved. Many young people will already know that they have gained a qualification, such as National 3 or 4, or achieved units or other awards. Thousands of others await the outcome of their efforts in the form of a graded award at National 5, Higher or Advanced Higher levels. The hope of all, no doubt, is that they have done enough to realise their ambitions for the year and be able to take the next steps in their learning journey as planned. Their parents will also be hoping for the best, and are probably more nervous than their children.

Following the SQA exam diet earlier this summer, teachers across the land will have digested the papers and will be wondering how their classes fared in relation to their hopes and expectations. Headteachers will have a particular sense of anticipation (perhaps even trepidation?) about the overall performance of cohorts, and ultimately how their schools will compare with local, national and virtual measures. This is how a school is judged – right?


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Performance in examinations is, in fact, just part of the picture. I have been fortunate as headteacher of Renfrew High, in Renfrewshire, over the past six years that the school’s overall performance has improved year on year. I have been able to welcome staff and pupils back to school by relaying messages of success, which helps to breed confidence and positivity, providing momentum for ongoing improvement.

Exam results day: 'It is individual achievement that matters'

However, when evaluating a school’s success we need to look beyond narrow attainment measures to areas such as the overall quality of learners’ experiences and – crucially for me – how young people are included and supported to become the best they can be.

The real joy in strong attainment is knowing that this translates to success for individual young people – that they have learned well and that the hard work has been recognised. Qualifications are a passport, empowering young people to make choices about where they want to go next. This is far more important than the interesting graphs we find in Scotland's Insight tool, and the antiquated “performance tables” we will undoubtedly see produced again by some newspapers.

We also need to remember that learning is a lifelong process – the word “journey” is overused in education but it is apt here. Surely success for a young person working hard to gain a strong set of National 4 qualifications, which leads to a college course they are interested in, is just as significant as the person gaining five A grades at Higher? For some, the journey is a flat 5km sprint, for others a hilly marathon. It is the individual, personal achievement that matters.

Of course, there will inevitably be some who feel disappointment after the envelope drops on to the mat or the email pings in the inbox. This is the nature of the system. Parents and teachers will be there to provide the reassurances and help to adapt the plan going forward. No one's journey through life is exactly as they anticipated, and the message I always spread at this time of year is: well done for the success, and where results were not as you wished, dust yourself down, regroup and go again. You are where you are – build from there.

I hope that colleagues and young people across Scotland have enjoyed well-earned time off in July, recharging and spending treasured time with family and friends. Results day is an important part of the school cycle – but the real pride for me is in what is learned and achieved every day.

Best wishes to all receiving results at this time, and to the parents and teachers who have supported them to achieve and will continue to do so – no matter what.

Billy Burke is headteacher of Renfrew High School and president of School Leaders Scotland

*Look out for Tes Scotland’s live blog on exam results day this Tuesday, 6 August

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