Melek Hitch-Turkmen spent much of the summer looking up the answers to GCSE exam questions online.
“I’d come out of some of the exams feeling quite confident,” the 16-year-old says. “Then I’d see online the answers that other people had given, and I’d think, 'Damn it. I got that wrong.' Or that I hadn’t done enough. Sometimes it made me feel like I was stupid.
“Then I’d count up how many things I’d got wrong. And I found unofficial mark schemes online and was panicking over every stupid thing I thought I’d done. I’ve looked up the grade boundaries. I feel like I’ve predicted what I’ve got.”
She pauses. “That probably wasn’t helpful. I should have just left it.”
Stages of nervousness
Melek is standing outside the main hall of Comberton Village College, in Cambridge, with a brown envelope in her hand. Around her, pupils, parents and teachers are all milling about, in various stages of nervousness.
“How did she do?” one mother calls out to the other.
The second mother shrugs. “She doesn’t want to open it until she’s in the car.”
Sixteen-year-old Zainab Abdullah, meanwhile, cannot bring herself to open her envelope at all. In the end, she hands it to her mother.
“I was shaking. Completely,” she says, once the envelope has been opened to reveal three A*s, six As and one B. “Then I saw my mum’s expression, and she was smiling. And she grabbed me and said, ‘Just look at it. Don’t run away.’ And then I did, and I was pleased.”
Zainab, too, has spent the past few weeks thinking about mark schemes and grade boundaries. “Everyone was calling me up, being: ‘The grade boundaries for maths are so high. The grade boundaries for biology are so high,'” she says. “I didn’t actually look. But I know people who spent all night looking at grade boundaries.
“I thought: I’m not going to look at it, because it’s not going to change anything. It’s just going to stress me out.”
Nearby, Flora Hay and Alex Cooke, both 16, are opening their envelopes. Flora's reveals a clutch of A*s, As and Bs, and one C. "I've heard so much about grades falling this year," she says. "So I was expecting it to be a lot worse. A lot worse."
Meanwhile, Alex has achieved all As and Bs: he has performed better than expected in some subjects, and less well in a couple. “I think I worked harder in those subjects I was less sure about,” she says. “So I did better in the subject I thought I’d do worse in.
“There were lots of people sending the mark scheme round on Twitter. But I didn’t think I’d done very well, so I decided it was better not to know.”
Peter Law, Comberton Village head of school, is not sure whether the ready availability of exam-related information online is necessarily a good thing. “More and more, students have access to the same information as teachers,” he says. “They can see the specifications, the syllabus and the grade boundaries.
“I think they need to use it sensibly. An abundance of information can act as an amplifier to the emotions. Students who are given to be anxious can become more so.”
This is something Corinne Davidson recognises. An assistant principal, she has responsibility for Year 11. “The key thing is to work hard during the two years – then you’ve done as well as you can in the exams,” she says.
Social media, she believes, clouds the picture for everyone. “They come out of their exams, and they start discussing it on social media and Twitter,” she says. “You’ve got the nation saying, ‘I thought this about this exam’. Then it’s difficult to get a picture of how the exams went for my pupils – to get a real sense of it.”
The morning after the night before
Nonetheless, she acknowledges that the waiting is hard, for teachers as well as pupils. “You do feel nervous, particularly the night before,” she says. “Particularly when you work really closely with a group for five years.
“There are particular kids you’re really invested in – who’ve struggled with confidence or their health or perhaps with overworking and anxiety.”
Melek is among those pupils prone to anxiety. Finally, she opens her envelope. “A*s in everything,” she says, sheepishly. “Nope. I was not expecting it. Shock. Lots of shock. I’m surprised I managed so highly in subjects.”
Now, she says, she plans to celebrate either by going back to bed or by eating pizza. “I’ll probably have a long talk with my friends,” she says. “Screaming about what we’ve got.
“Just relaxing, after worrying so much. Not all summer, but most of it.” She smiles. “Apparently the grade boundaries were better than I thought.”