If you think you'd get better grades now, try it

2nd October 1998 at 01:00
Once again the students have received their results with tears, screams of joy, or stiff upper lips. Once again the college has exceeded its previous scores both for A-level pass rate and for high grades. Not only that, but our pass rate has gone up by two-and-a-half times the national average. The top student of the year gained five grade As - unheard of a few years ago. This cycle of success should ensure that we continue to attract students capable of such results.

I don't propose to enter the now tired debate about the improved pass and falling standards rates. When the question - is the one caused by the other - was put to me by a local journalist I invited anyone who thought they could do better with the modern syllabuses than they did in the past to contact me and have a go. No one has so far. But I was actually thinking of something quite different as I watched the students opening their envelopes.

I was thinking that most students gain the results they should according to their ability and commitment. Even those which knock their recipients for six do not usually surprise the teachers as much. Those with excellent grades are almost invariably very able students. None of this is to denigrate the effort and hard work even a clever student must put into gaining three, four or even five A grades. But you would expect those for whom the potential prize is greater to work harder than some of those who couldn't aspire to top grades. And if the latter perform above prediction and achieve more private triumphs they need to be praised at least as highly as those who have come top of the year.

We take more into our adult life than our academic qualifications, though. When the very bright are in need, they'll want someone to talk to, someone to advise them or take them out of themselves. They won't want to spend evening after evening poring over their certificates for consolation.

So I was particularly pleased to note the behaviour of some of our brightest students on the day the results came out. One girl had been especially anxious about her results; she had been sick during the examinations and had been unable to sit one of the papers in each of two subjects. She had an offer from Oxford and needed high grades.

In the event she gained four As. Did she scream and punch the air and shout "Yesss"? No she didn't. Her best friend had missed her place for medicine by one grade and was devastated. Without even thinking of her own success, student A (as I shall call her) put her arm round student B (ditto) and took her to see the careers co-ordinator for advice, encouraged her to check that her university really wouldn't take her, and generally ministered to her until they went out of college together.

I was prouder of student A for the way she behaved that morning than for her results. I am sure that her capacity for empathy and her active support to her friends will be of as much value to her in later life as the excellent degree she will no doubt enjoy working for over the next three years. Her response may have been caused by a desire not to seem unnecessarily triumphalist, but it was quite apparent that most of it was attributable to sensitivity.

If we can turn out young people who have gained good and well-deserved results and are also able to put themselves and their interest into the background when their friends need them, we can feel that we are doing a good job.

Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon

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