GCSE results day 2021: How to handle TAG unhappiness

What should a teacher do if a student blames them for not getting the GCSE grade they think they deserve this year? Tes rounds up advice for those preparing for that possibility

Grainne Hallahan

Schools need to be ready for any blame pushed onto teachers by unhappy pupils

For the second year in a row, results day is going to be a little bit different.

Some things will be the same: envelopes from the exams board, excited cheers and nervous smiles. 

But this time, if students are unhappy with their grades, they cannot blame a faceless examiner – instead, their ire will be directed at their classroom teacher.


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It won't matter that teacher-assessed grades (TAGs) are far more complicated than the decision being made by just one teacher. In the minds of many teenagers, the narrative will simply be: my teacher did this to me.

It's not an ideal situation for a teacher to be in – so what can you do to ensure results day does not turn into a blame game between student, parents and school?

Will TAGs beat CAGs? 

Perhaps the first point to make is that, although last year's centre-assessed grades (CAGs) process was hardly smooth and something of a roller coaster of U-turns, teachers can take comfort this year that it is not the first time they have been in this position.

Laura May Rowlands, head of faculty for English and literacy at Woodlands Community College in Southampton, says that, in many ways, this year is actually less daunting.

"Compared to the CAGs of 2020, I feel a lot less apprehensive about the TAGs of 2021," she says. "This year, our work has been sampled and consequently, as a department, we're feeling more confident about what is to come."

And it isn't just knowing what the results process will be like that has reduced anxiety. Katherine Childs, head of English at a secondary school in Dorset, says last year was made more challenging because of the social distancing rules.

"I feel better about this year having gone through the last results day," says Childs. "School is looking like it's going to be a lot more like normal in September, and our TAGs have been sampled. Last year, we had bubbles hanging over us plus the nonsense with the algorithm, which meant teachers felt as if they were in the dark."

GCSE results 2021: dealing with student disappointment

Nonetheless, it is likely there will be unhappy students who take umbrage with their results that cause some tough moments for teachers and senior leaders.

So, how do you navigate any inevitable disappointment on the day? We spoke with middle and senior leaders to get their advice.

1. Put on a united front

In advance of results day, senior leaders should brief all staff about what response to give if a student is disappointed with their results. It’s really important that there is consistency in the school’s response, and staff are professional in how they deal with complaints from students.

Childs says it is of the utmost importance that all staff know the procedure to comply with the official policies.

"All staff need to know they cannot get involved in conversations with angry or upset students or parents on their own," she says. "Teachers should immediately pass on the complaint to the member of staff who can ensure both the school policy, and the JCQ [Joint Council for Qualifications] policy, is followed."

If complaints come in over email, Childs also says teachers should be warned not to reply individually, but rather pass it along to their line manager, who should reply using a holding email.

Patrick Cragg, head of department at a secondary school in West London, adds that teachers need a simple message that they all stick to, and that they shouldn't feel under any pressure to engage in a discussion about grades with students or families.

I’d advise that all staff members tell their students the same message,” says Cragg, “Something like: 'Remember that your subject teachers did not personally choose your grades. You may be disappointed with a particular subject, but just like after a normal exam, you need to refer to your school's exams officer if you have a query.'”

2. Focus on the future

In order to manage the disappointment of the students who have not been successful in securing the grades they had hoped to, schools should ensure that the focus is firmly on the next step, and what options are open to them.

Rowlands feels that each school needs to prepare something specific to their context and local education provisions.

“I would advocate a signposting approach,” says Rowlands. “The focus should be on the future and finding out their options. It would be helpful if schools could put together a flow chart of different routes post-16 that are available to their students. It's about making time to reflect and focusing on overcoming the next hurdle.”

3. Give students space to talk

Disappointment, frustration and anger are all reasonable responses to not achieving the grades you hoped for. If your students are struggling to manage their emotions then it is important that they’re given support with this, as well as time to adjust to the news of their results.

Childs feels that there should be plans in place for students’ emotional needs, as well as to provide practical support. The schools’ head of year and pastoral teams must be prepared to help distressed students, she says.

“If students are angry, it’s important to direct them to a relevant person who can talk them through their options,” explains Childs. “They may be blaming a teacher because they’re disappointed, but it’s important to let them offload in a place away from other students.”

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Grainne Hallahan

Grainne Hallahan

Grainne Hallahan is Tes recruitment editor and senior content writer at Tes

Find me on Twitter @heymrshallahan

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