GCSE results: 'Is this the best we can do for pupils?'

We nurture pupils for years and their fate is decided in the time it takes to rip open an envelope, says Hilary Goldsmith

Hilary Goldsmith

GCSE results day 2019: It is cruel that we nurture pupils for years and then their fate suddenly hangs on the contents of one envelope, says Hilary Goldsmith

’Twas the night before Christmas. Oh, wait. Sorry. GCSE results downloads. 

Go again, from the top.

’Twas the night before GCSE results downloads and, all through the house, headteachers were bracing themselves for the next 48 hours. Because, for secondary headteachers, there really is no greater test of personal strength than this most eagerly anticipated and longed-for night of the year. Not only do you have to put on your virtual Santa hat and download a year's worth of work in one night, but you also have to deliver parcels in the form of GCSE results to all the girls and boys. And, much like Christmas, there is usually a good list and a not-so-good list: the students who got what they needed, and the ones who didn't. 

And that's where my silly Christmas analogy ends, because that's where real lives come into play – children's lives and futures turned on their heads by the contents of a thin brown envelope. How can that be right?

How GCSE results day shapes our lives

I know it's not really just the one event: it's the culmination of 11 years of formal education. But the moment itself is utterly life-changing, whatever the outcome. As adults, we still remember that day when our turn came. We each have a very personal memory of how that day shaped our lives, and the judgements that came along with it, which we still carry with us today.

It seems bizarre – and even cruel – to me that our education system nurtures and supports, encourages and coaxes young people for all those years and then, in the time it takes to rip open a Manila envelope, takes them, pats them on the back or mops their tears, and kicks them out into the big wide world to do the best they can without us. It seems unbearably harsh, in fact, especially for the ones who needed and valued that support the most.

Anyway, this isn't the place to redefine the UK's education system. That's for another day. But this is a day when every adult in the country should stop, pause, reflect and consider this defining moment in the formulation of our next generation, and then ask themselves if this is the best that we can do.

This was the first year I wasn't in school for GCSE results-download day. As a previous data manager, SIMS manager and then exams officer, I've played a key part in GCSE and A-level days for a long time. In later years, I've been there to steady the ship, to centre a wobbly head, to make the tea, to corral the kids, to stop the parents from parking on the double yellow lines, to write the press releases and to ensure that the photos of jumping teenagers contain an appropriately diverse mix.

Back to an empty school 

It's an odd time in the school calendar. August is the domain of the premises manager. As a breed, premises managers do all they can to keep anyone who isn't a contractor out of school. Then, on that one day, the day after the download, the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed teaching staff bound in, still sunkissed and dressed in civvies, crashing through taped-off areas, parking in the coned-off car park that's full of skips, expecting there to be full access to their classrooms and the IT network, and for there somehow to be plenty of milk in the staffroom fridge.

Milk has a higher street value than gluesticks on GCSE day, and anyone with a Rich Tea biscuit is frankly godlike. But the only milk to be found will be in the head's office, because the business manager will have stopped off and bought some on the way in yesterday. 

(There is, of course, a secret, larger stash of milk and superior-quality M&S biscuits in a secret location known only to the business, premises and IT managers, but that's not for sunburnt teachers, glory-hunter governors or the opportunist junior hack from the local paper. This milk and biscuit stash is for the AYRs – the All-Year-Rounders – and no one else need know about that.)

Pastoral support for students

And so, as we fling open the one fire door that isn't being replaced, and welcome our returning Year 11s into our halls and libraries (or canteens, at a push, if the library's being painted or the heating work in the hall isn't finished yet), we hold our breath as we watch them open their destinies.

We already know the results. Of course we do. But we can't let them know that. It's their moment, not ours. We've already highlighted a list of names for the photographer to hang around by, to capture that special photograph that will grace our websites and promotional brochures for the next 12 months. 

And, with another coloured pen, we've highlighted another list, for the pastoral leads to catch quietly, and to lead away to speak softly with the careers team in another room.

And so, whatever happens today, let's extend our love and support to headteachers everywhere, as they bear the burden of hundreds of futures. 

Fare well, and good luck.

Hilary Goldsmith is a school business and finance consultant. She tweets as @sbl365 

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