Results hide the talent of the late developer

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
It's GCSE results day and I've just got off the phone with a good friend, who is also a headteacher. Our topic of conversation? You guessed it: our exam results. This may not seem surprising but the fact that he was speaking to me from his hospital bed after a very serious accident made me reflect. Are we obsessed?

We have so much invested in these results we forget the things that really matter. It's not only the pupils who get anxious on results day - headteachers feel exactly the same.

The local education authority has been on the phone, as have the chair of governors, the press and other interested parties. Members of the leadership team who are still on holiday have also been in touch. All are waiting for good news.

Sadly, the news was not as good as we expected, and we are all disappointed that we have not made the progress we anticipated. All anybody is interested in at this moment is the number of A* to C grades. This is the benchmark of success. Nobody is interested in anything less than a C, except perhaps the pupils.

The regular "exams are too easy" hysteria starts even before the results are published and is very annoying. The breakfast news is full of happy students opening their nine A* grades live on TV and even Ruby on EastEnders has achieved numerous A* grades despite her troubled life.

What must our average student who has done fairly well or, worse still, very badly, feel like? What happens to their self-esteem? The situation is made worse when employers tell us that GCSEs and A-levels are not worth the paper they are written on. The London Evening Standard even tells us to skip GCSEs and go straight to A-levels.

Others talk about pupils opting for easy subjects rather than the traditional harder subjects. I wish it were that easy. Our pupils have a real struggle to achieve. Those who have worked incredibly hard and who have had support from their parents have done really well - as expected.

Those who find it hard to participate in learning and do not get support at home have not achieved their potential.

We try to find ways to motivate our young people and to get them involved in learning. League tables are not helpful to anyone. The expectation that schools can improve year by year is not realistic. Cohorts differ in ability and motivation. Tables say nothing about a school's intake or circumstances. The bid to achieve a respectable place in the league causes some schools to refuse to admit pupils with special needs. Similarly, any Year 11 pupil looking for a place will have great difficulty finding a school to take him or her on.

As I looked at the faces of pupils coming in to collect results, I could feel their fear. Even those who did little or no work seem surprised that they did not do well. They were hoping for some sort of miracle. We know this is a sign of their lack of maturity but that is the problem. Our job is to pick them up and help them to sort out their next move.

GCSEs occur at one of the most difficult stages of young people's lives.

They have a lot on their mind and are distracted from their studies. Our experience is that they do much better in the sixth form. That additional year, post 16, makes all the difference, no matter what their ability levels. Even the most difficult of our pupils can turn into hard-working mature students who achieve well. Their whole attitude to learning changes in a short time.

As a late developer myself, I am conscious that exams should not be age-related. They should be taken when the young people are ready.

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