Talking heads that don't make sense

29th August 2008 at 01:00
Forget the media sniping. When GCSEs are out, it's time to celebrate the young's successes - or console them

We don't take much notice of what goes on in the media on GCSE results day. What matters most are the pupils. It is their day, and national trends do not trouble us. These are our kids, and we want to share their triumphs and their pain.

As we greet them and celebrate, we can hear the echoes of the "talking heads" on distant TV screens, using the results to score political points. To us, it seems to be a deliberate attempt to puncture the excitement and the sense of achievement. Meanwhile, the pupils wait anxiously.

Those with least to worry about are the most nervous, and they are usually girls. Boys have an unrealistic bravado and seem shocked that they haven't actually got the straight A*s they were so confident of achieving. Soon there is a boy sobbing with his head in his hands. It is a painful lesson. "I wish I had worked harder," he says. I think: "You and me, kid."

Some boys will sit in the corner, trying to mask their below-par grades in pencil, hoping to escape parental wrath. Sometimes this is their last visit to school to pick up the envelope that summarises the educational achievements of their lives to date. A few weeks ago they were so anxious to leave. Now the reality of a future scares them. They look at their results, slowly realising what it all might mean.

Some bold boy will smoke just outside the door in a final act of defiance before collecting his three F grades, still not grasping that his hopes of a career as a doctor lie in tatters. His mother will phone up, of course, demanding a re-mark to move his grade in music up to an A. He didn't do all the elements of the exam, she says, but he spends all his time in his bedroom playing the guitar. He can play two tunes now and really is quite talented.

It won't be the only call. The parents want the A* grades they have heard about on TV. If others have got them, why not their son or daughter?

I take the view that GCSEs are cruel but fair. Results generally reflect the amount of work pupils put in. There are few injustices. If the kids did the work, then generally they do well enough. Some parents don't see this at all. They want the school to make ridiculous appeals.

Their belief in their offspring's talent is often based on a piece of work they handed in during Year 7 that was copied fairly accurately from an older sister. The fact that they only submitted half of the coursework in Year 11 is irrelevant. And some parents always complain it isn't fair. They rant that this means their son or daughter has wasted five years, which is true.

In between the elation and tears, we spend the day desperately crunching bizarre statistics. This will have started the moment the computer coughed out the results. One department's grades are up; another's are down.

In the end, our deliberations always come down to a handful of kids. If four more had got three extra marks in their English coursework, then we would have gone up two percentage points. How close are we to our rival schools? Are we up? Are we down?

I have always believed the success belongs to the pupils. The teachers shouldn't take the credit. Similarly, we can't take the blame when pupils don't do very well. Teachers get on with their job; they put everything in front of the pupils and it is up to them whether or not they work hard enough. Most teachers realise this and maintain a sense of perspective.

Of course, there is nothing you can do to control the rivalry between departments. There are more A grades in that one because the requirements are less rigorous. It can never be the success of the teacher who taught the subject in Year 11.

You can only really draw any worthwhile conclusions of a school's GCSE success if you know it in some detail and have a context. Without that, you can conclude nothing. Yet it doesn't stop others from trying. The exams are used in so many different ways, and most of these are spurious.

Drawing conclusions about schools on the basis of whether or not they can get a grade out of a couple of pupils who have only just been allowed access to sharp things in a food technology lesson has always seemed dodgy to me.

We find ourselves in a foolish position. We have entered more pupils for interesting and useful vocational qualifications. So, naturally, they have done fewer GCSE exams. Thus, our GCSE score will decline. It is ironic that the kids will have done better, but the school will apparently have done worse. But who cares?

Results day is about the pupils - just as it should be. The pupils and their futures are what count. Talking heads on TV and radio really don't matter.

Geoff Brookes, Deputy head of Cefn Hengoed School, Swansea.

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