Summer delivers its promise at last

Janet Ryder

My son has endured 14 years of long, hard work and thousands of hours of study. The pressure has increased year on year, with Sats, GCSEs, AS-levels and now A2s. The number of weekly working hours also increased, relentlessly. And now the day had dawned that would decide his fate.

These results would shape how he spent his life, and would definitely determine the next four to six years. Would it be the hoped-for years of tuition fees and maintenance support? Would it be re-sits, or even a complete change of direction?

All had implications for me - exams aren't easy for children but they aren't easy for parents, either. Fourteen years ago, both of us were learning to live an independent life. He left the security of home for the unknown adventures of school, and left me on my own again after what seemed an eternity of always putting someone else first.

All those hours of struggling to learn to read, to do maths - though at least the science was easy in those days. As the years passed, the questions became harder, until the pure mathematical equations on the page seemed less comprehensible to me than those early attempts at reading did to him. But he learned all those strange shapes and made sense out of those mysterious patterns.

I reassured myself that I had done everything possible, been supportive and bitten my tongue as those traumatic years of adolescence went by. He remembers that long wait through the summer of 2002 for those GCSE results.

But this time it was worse. I kept reassuring this young adult - now merely semi-domiciled in our house - that he had done the best he could. Regardless of the results, I would still be proud of him. But that shared fear still lingered at the back of both our minds. What would the future hold?

The screw turned tighter each day, the radio was louder, the guitar played for longer and with more passion, and everyone's sleep was reduced. Would he have done enough to get the grades needed to take him to the university of his choice? Had I given him enough support? Was there anything else I could have done?

Then results day arrived. As I was not allowed to accompany him to school, it was an agonising wait, with mixed feelings of hope and dread. If the young person who was so touchy at breakfast had a bad night, then mine was equally troubled.

Would it be elation or consolation? I prepared myself. Because no matter how hard he had worked, no matter what his Sats and GCSE results were, 14 years of work would be dictated by a handful of tests. Tests that might have been taken when he wasn't feeling at his best, or when the weather was insufferably hot or something went wrong with his social life. Achieving A-grades through GCSEs and AS-levels and the best reports in the world from teachers would not deliver that longed-for place at medical school if something had gone wrong in those final exams.

As parents, we admire the way they take the pressure, suffer with them during their long wait, and agonise over their uncertain future. But we do it at a little distance - we tread lightly, for we must not increase their tension.

We question the system. Is it fair to our children, in a world where we are looking more and more towards a 14 to 19 learning pathway based on continuous assessment, that so much still depends on final examinations? Is it not time to look again at how we assess our young people's ability to continue to study at a higher level?

We need a system that is perhaps not so much of a lottery but based on a true assessment of a young person's ability over four years and with the results made known earlier. If the universities can do it, why cannot our examination boards?

For results day, though, the thoughts were closer to home. Like the first day I left him at school, I hoped on his return he would be able to say:

"Look what I got at school, mum!"

Janet Ryder is shadow education minister in the National Assembly. Her son, Geoffrey, a student at Ysgol Brynhyfryd in Denbighshire, gained three A grades at A-level and plans to study medicineat Manchester university

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Janet Ryder

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