GCSE results: are you an ostrich or headless chicken?

GCSE results day often sends headteachers into a spin - when what is needed is a measured reaction, says Stephen Tierney

GCSE results day: Headteachers frequently bury their heads in the sand, writes Stephen Tierney

Metaphorically, I’ve sat in the same car as John Tomsett on results day. In one of John’s many excellent posts, he talks about how, on a particular results day, things had not gone as well as he and the school had hoped. After speaking to students, parents and staff, the headteacher sought the sanctuary of his car and wept.

At home, in conversation with his wife, it was agreed that if he had had enough and couldn’t face the job any more, then maybe it would be better to quit. John didn’t quit, but far too many teachers and leaders have and will in the future.

Thursday will be my third results days of the year – key stage 2 Sats in July, A levels last week and now GCSEs – and it will also be my last as a teacher or school leader. Thirty-two consecutive years of results. I’ve wept tears of joy, relief, frustration and despair. 

Results days have changed over the years, and the pressure on schools, leaders and teachers has increased. You’re now only as good as your last Progress 8 or percentage of pupils achieving reading, writing and mathematics at the expected standards. 

If the school is “in the window”, or you are “expecting the call”, the pressure is amplified. Those working in areas of systemic long-term disadvantage are more at risk.

It’s probably not surprising that results days can have an odd and sometimes perverse impact on leaders’ behaviour.

GCSE results day: the Cheshire Cat approach

There’s the Cheshire Cat approach: walking around with a huge grin, because results are good or at least better than expected and “we should be safe for another year”. The school has little sense of what led to this year’s success, and as such doesn’t know what to do more of, or what to ditch, tweak or seek to introduce. Whether results are good or bad is totally down to the vagaries of a year group, examiner or particular examination or syllabus.

The Ostrich approach

Then there’s the ostrich approach: simply bury your head in the sand and hope it will all go away. Another set of disappointing results – real or perceived – and the school, leaders and teachers are feeling overwhelmed. Cue an externalisation and outsourcing of both the problem and the solution. The multi-academy trust head office is called in or lands; a new phalanx of consultants or advisers appear. For the staff, it’s just another totally disparate set of Inset days and demands that lack any coherence, direction or impact. They shrug their shoulders and just carry on carrying on. 

The headless-chicken approach

The headless-chicken approach can look very similar. The headteacher and senior leadership team running around, fuelled by caffeine, causing as many – if not more – problems than they are solving.

The sledgehammer approach

Finally, there is the sledgehammer-to-crack-a-nut approach. A sledgehammer is a hugely threatening piece of equipment. If it’s used when more surgical approaches are needed, it does great harm to individuals, careers and culture. There’s a small dip one year for a subject or department or teacher, and all hell breaks loose. People are fearful for their jobs; a blame culture develops, and teachers or leaders are either pushed out or decide to jump. A toxic culture develops or deepens. This is at the root of a lot of the profession’s retention and recruitment difficulties. I imagine the weeks around results days are some of the busiest times for unions’ and professional associations’ hotlines.

Thoughtful action, not a knee-jerk reaction

However, results days can provide some fascinating information for a school, as well as passports for young people to further and higher education, apprenticeships or employment. What is needed is thoughtful action, not reflex action. 

The neural pathway that produces the reflexive knee jerk does not pass through the human brain. Instead, we should be breathing and thinking (repeat), before doing anything. The time between results day and the start of a new term is useful for sitting on a mountain and taking the long view. Hopefully most of what needs doing is already in the school’s development plan at various stages of implementation. 

Any action taken following results day needs to be the right action to solve a real problem. It needs to be the right action to support, embed and spread successful approaches to learning within the school. It needs to be rooted in long-term endeavours, rather than quick fixes. 

In many ways, results day is the wrong time to look at the issues in an analytical and measured way. There is quite naturally variation from one year to the next – normally around a narrow range, except when new examinations are introduced. The first year of a new syllabus or curriculum tends to see much greater variability. This needs to be taken into account. 

The challenge for the leader is simple to conceptualise but difficult in practice: how do you motivate staff to work hard at the right things, and what unique contribution can you make to this? 

Too often in my career, I either got in the way or sent us off down the wrong path. Developing greater agency and expertise for teachers and middle leaders is preferable to the pretence of movement, which is really just busy people running around in ever-decreasing circles.

A steady, measured, metronomic approach to school leadership and management – whole-school, departmental and in the classroom  –builds success over time. 

Looking forward, my next GCSE results day – if GCSEs still exist by then – will be in 2034, when my grandson will be 16. Until then, be kind to yourself and to others, think before you act and most of all…breathe.

Stephen Tierney is chair of the Headteachers' Roundtable, a blogger and author of Liminal Leadership. He tweets @LeadingLearner

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