GCSE results: 'Let’s reject the naysayers, celebrate successes and stop beating ourselves up over exams'

More and more heads are battling their obsession with exams and accountability, writes one high profile headteacher. Now is the time to give parents and pupils what they really want: a good local school providing a rounded education

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

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Another GCSE results day – my fourteenth as a headteacher. And all I know, as I glimpse over my receding hairline charted in successive annual photographs, is that they don’t get any less stressful.

That’s not because I’m particularly prone to anxiety, or especially edgy that I may get the sack. Even my numerous enemies wouldn’t describe me as paranoid.

Nope – it’s simply a feeling that for many school leaders this worry goes with the job.

In fact, I received my first email from a colleague telling me that he’d lost sleep about this summer’s results some time ago. Last December, actually.

And yesterday – once the preview of the results was out – I had a flurry of despairing messages from heads whose hopes for improved results had evaporated in a moment’s disappointment. However much we breathed down the necks of our data managers, we knew that no new higher grades were going to be squeezed out.

This is UK education – where too often it feels like the achievements of students come second to the way schools, and their leaders, are judged.

So there will be plenty of school and subject leaders feeling distraught today, even amid the scenes of jubilant young people.

Endless changes to school measures

Part of that anxiety comes from the endless changes to school measures, and uncertainty in the media about what these might look like, what they might mean.

The uncertainty is fanned by a social media tendency to share rumours and scare stories.

The effect, if we are not careful, is to allow ourselves to believe that all of this matters more than it might do. I sense a new mood prevailing – in which the obsession with international comparisons is increasingly questioned, in which the fixation with comparable outcomes is increasingly exposed as madness, and in which more and more heads find the confidence to shrug off the data obsession and focus instead on what most parents want – leading good local schools where academic success goes hand-in-hand with great enrichment opportunities.

It’s a school like this that I’m proud to lead, and it's an education system I’d like to be part of.

So whether it’s a good day or a disappointing one for our own schools, let’s keep going back to the principles of why we came into education. Let’s reject the naysayers, celebrate successes and stop beating ourselves up unduly if – as in the real world – there have been some disappointments.

We owe it, after all, to our students to show that real learning – for institutions and their leaders, as for young people – arises from failing as well as success. That’s real education.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, a 14-18 comprehensive school in Suffolk. He tweets as @realgeoffbarton

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